[Screen It]


(2013) (Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier) (PG-13)

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Horror: A couple tries to normalize their young, feral nieces who grew up in the woods by themselves, but must contend with the girls' ghostly caretaker.
Annabel (JESSICA CHASTAIN) is a young woman in a rock band who's enjoying her life and learning that she's not pregnant by live-in boyfriend Lucas (NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU). For the past five years, he's been obsessed with finding his young nieces, Victoria (MEGAN CHARPENTIER) and Lilly (ISABELLE NELISSE), who've been missing ever since their father, Jeffrey (NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU), killed his business associates and ex-wife and took their young daughters on a snowy car ride that resulted in a crash in the remote woods. When he was about to mercy-kill Victoria, a floating apparition killed him.

Now, with his funds having run out, Lucas' efforts have finally paid off as the girls have been found in a feral state living in the woods. Their great aunt, Jean (JANE MOFFAT), wants to take custody of them, but child psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (DANIEL KASH) convinces the court that Lucas and Annabel would be best for the girls, especially with his supervision in a large house provided free of charge. Annabel isn't crazy about the idea, a sentiment worsened when things start going bump in the night and Lucas takes a nasty spill that leaves him hospitalized in a coma.

Now on her own, Annabel tries to cope as well as possible. But odd occurrences in the house along with the girls' weird behavior -- including them talking to and seemingly interacting with Mama (JAVIER BOTET), a figure everyone initially believes to be a figment of their collective imagination -- really starts to creep her out. As she comes to realize that Mama is a real ghost, she does what she can to figure out who she is and how to get rid of her.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
More than a decade ago, we were approached by some people we knew -- but weren't close friends with and had only seen once over a number of years -- about becoming their kids' guardians should something happen to the two of them. We had to politely decline for a number of reasons. For starters, we had only met their young children once and thus would be strangers to them and vice versa.

And then there was the fact that they lived half-way across the country meaning either we'd have to move there (and thus leave our familiar surroundings and find new jobs, etc.) or they'd have to be uprooted from everything they knew and come here. Simply put, it wasn't an ideal arrangement for anyone involved. And who knows, they might have come with the extra baggage of having some overly protective and occasionally murderous ghostly guardian looking over them.

That's what Annabelle (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) eventually discover when they become custodians of his long-orphaned nieces (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) in the horror film "Mama." In the several minute prologue that's set five years before the main story, the girls' distraught father has just killed his business associates and ex-wife, taken his daughters on a manic snowy drive that results in an off-road car crash in the middle of nowhere, and then contemplated killing himself and then his eldest. But a ghostly and ghastly thing in the dark gets him from behind and eliminates the potential of any such future harm from his miserable life.

The new guardians along with a child psychologist (Daniel Kash) believe that figure -- given the titular moniker -- is just a figment of the girls' feral imagination that helped them somehow manage to survive half a decade, growing up and fending for themselves in the woods. Of course, given the sort of superior position horror flick viewers are usually provided in these sorts of genre pics, we know full well that there's a ghost in play and that no Ghostbusters are in sight.

From that point on, this offering -- from first-time director Andrés Muschietti who works from a screenplay he co-wrote with Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross -- follows the standard trajectory of such pics. Things go bump in the night, the adults slowly walk around in the dark looking for clues, some kids are put in peril, we learn the back-story regarding the ghost and her modus operandi, and there's the climactic scene where either the ghost departs of some of the living join her (we won't give up any spoilers).

I'll admit there are some creepy moments and effective jump scenes, but given the fact that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's name is attached to this pic, I was expecting something a bit better and more unnerving than what is ultimately offered. Granted, had the director of "The Devil's Backbone" and the terrific "Pan's Labyrinth" also helmed this film, the results might have been more effective.

As it stands, it relies too much on the genre's usual conventions, including the more recent ones (introduced by all of those Japanese horror flicks a while back) featuring female ghosts with lots of flowing hair, in your face (and thus the camera) paranormal rushes, black stuff oozing and growing on the walls, and supernatural beings that are all crooked and creaky in their movements.

Yes, it could still likely startle people. But it never really burrows deep down into the viewer's psyche, something the best horror pics do and thus manage to elicit goose bumps and creeped-out moments years or even decades later when some similar cue (the score, some sort of visual, etc.) quickly opens the nightmarish floodgates. Simply put, there's nothing here that really stands out from the pack or will be memorable down the line.

That is, except that it may contain an Oscar winner in the lead role. While that's yet to be determined, Jessica Chastain has recently won both the Golden Globe and our very own Critics Choice Movie Award for her work in "Zero Dark Thirty." That said, with her short black hair and sporting various tattoos, she might not be that recognizable to the general public that likely still doesn't really know who she is. While she's decent in the role here as the girlfriend who doesn't want kids and must not only put up with them but also their tag-along ghost, there isn't any great breadth to her character with which she can do anything remarkable.

Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse are decent as the girls (with the former showing the greater character arc while the latter convincingly plays a kid with medium to strong feral instincts). Yet, it's unlikely they'll join the ranks of Regan ("The Exorcist"), Damien ("The Omen"), Carol Anne ("Poltergeist") or Danny ("The Shining") as memorably movie kids put in supernatural harm's way. Coster-Waldau is okay as their uncle (but gets sidelined by a coma and thus is out of commission for much of the 100-minute runtime) and Kash plays the usual child psychiatrist digging for answers, but Jane Moffat can't really do much in a meager subplot featuring her family member character wanting custody of the kids.

Overall, if you like your scares to be of the traditional variety inside a story with some paranormal detective work, "Mama" might just be the sort of horror-nurturing film that's right up your alley. But if you're looking for something more interesting or with del Toro's unique stamp on it, this offering will come off as mediocre at best. It rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 15, 2013 / Posted January 18, 2013

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