What’s under the bed? Who’s behind that door? What’s making those vaguely satanic noises? These and other thought-provoking questions are entertained in “Mama,” a visually polished but overly repetitive chiller about two girls haunted by a ghost with a seriously advanced case of postpartum depression. Expanded by sibling filmmakers Andy and Barbara Muschietti from their 2008 short, this English-language, Spanish-Canadian co-production bears the influence of exec producer Guillermo del Toro in its graphic supernatural elements and lyrical underpinnings, but ultimately amounts to little more than a stylish exercise assured of a solid opening and a strong ancillary afterlife.
One of the story’s key miscalculations is the way it gives audiences a pretty good glimpse of the titular spook early on, leaving Mama with little to do for the rest of the 109-minute running time besides remind the viewer, ad nauseam, about her extreme clinginess and anger-management issues.
A flying, towering banshee played by 7-foot-tall Spanish thesp Javier Botet (“REC”) under an ugly brown swirl of long hair and tattered rags, Mama looks like a sewer-rat Rapunzel as designed by Edvard Munch. This grief-stricken, child-bereft spirit haunts a lonely cabin in the woods, where, in a bizarre collision between two equally tortured backstories, a deeply distressed father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has brought his two young daughters in preparation for a grisly murder-suicide. But before Dad can harm the girls, Mama forcefully intervenes.
A full five years pass before the girls are discovered in the cabin — feral, frightened, limited in their language abilities, and prone to skittering about on all fours. After examining the physically healthy but emotionally traumatized 8-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and 6-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), a psychiatrist (Daniel Kash) concludes that the girls coped with their half-decade of isolation by creating an imaginary female protector.
But that theory doesn’t account for the ghoulish events that occur when Victoria and Lilly go to live with their musician uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) and his punk-rocker g.f., Annabel (Jessica Chastain) in a picturesque suburban manse. Soon doors are opening and closing by themselves, a disembodied voice is overheard singing lullabies, the walls start to sprout living insects, and Lucas winds up hospitalized after a not-so-accidental fall. Left alone with Victoria and Lilly, Annabel must discover her own latent maternal instincts and ward off Mama’s increasingly anticlimactic tantrums.
Andy Muschietti displays unusual style and confidence for a first-time helmer, and he and producer Barbara Muschietti (both credited for the screenplay with Neil Cross) have taken pains to render Mama as sympathetic a supernatural terrorist as possible; her respective bonds with the older, better-adjusted Victoria and the younger, more dependent Lilly are cleverly delineated. At times the film seems to be striving for the fantastical feel of del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” from the “Once upon a time … ” title card that kicks things off, to the poetic touches in Anastasia Masaro’s literally moth-eaten production design and the cloying orchestral surge of Fernando Velazquez’s score.
But all this feels like elegant fairy-tale shellac on top of an otherwise routine succession of jolts, shocks and fakeouts, the explanations for which will be apparent to the mildly attentive viewer long before they occur to any of the characters. Mama, for all her digital and prosthetic creepiness, is finally a bit of a bore.
Chastain acquits herself well in a scream-queen role made somewhat more distinctive by a butch haircut and sarcastic goth-girl edge, and she wrings maximum feeling from Annabel’s slow-dawning sense of connection with her young charges (effectively portrayed by young Charpentier and Nelisse). Yet in straining so hard to combat the assumption that a woman like Annabel couldn’t possibly be a good mother, the film protests rather too much, coming across as not much more enlightened than the waspy great-aunt (played as a one-note cold fish by Jane Moffat) trying to secure custody of the girls.
The super-slick production is distinguished by Antonio Riestra’s adroit lensing, with its grimy earth tones and sometimes suspenseful framing, particularly in one memorable deep-focus shot that makes shivery use of offscreen space.