The "Creepy Kid" movie is officially a genre. From 'Village of the Damned' to 'The Bad Seed' to shots of Danny Torrence spaced out and making noises from the back of his throat in 'The Shining,' there's something that cuts from the screen directly to whichever gland releases that “flight” endorphin in your brain. While the marketing material makes it seem as if 'Mama' is going to be a Creepy Kid movie for the ages, it falls upon me to report that, sadly, this is not the case. This is, at root, another "Kid in Peril" flick, and while that has a value all its own, it is not quite a vehicle for inexplicable, nightmare-inducing horror.
'Mama' begins the same way as Nicolas Roeg's 'Walkabout' – a depressed father grabs his kids and takes them to a far off place with the intention of a murder-suicide. When he hides himself in a broken cabin in the woods, he can't bring himself to pull the trigger. A “presence,” however, is ready to do the job on him, at least, yanking him into the darkness in a way that's perfectly timed to maximize an audience going “yipe!”
Years pass and the dead man's brother (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka Jaime Lannister from 'Game of Thrones') hasn't given up on finding the kids. Just as he's about to give up hope (and run out of dough) his scouts find the two hairy beasties crawling around the decrepit cabin, apparently subsisting on an unending supply of cherries.
The sisters are brought to civilization for a psychological study, and while their idioglossia and nervous tics imply that something demonic has taken ahold of them, the foolish scientists all agree there's nothing wrong that a little love can't cure.
After a plea bargain to protect the kids from a nasty aunt, (who isn't exactly that villainous, but the movie needs a villain) the Institute grants the new family a plot of suburban bliss. There are two problems, however: Jaime Lannister's girlfriend, an almost unrecognizable Jessica Chastain, is too punk rock for raising square kids, man, and, of course, the undead spirit of the girls' woodland caretaker decides to come, too.
There are a handful of decent jump scares as the spooky sprite the girls call “Mama” hovers about the house without Chastain noticing. It rattles the pots and opens closets and, in a few wonderfully framed moments, is right! there! behind! her! if she'd only turn her head. Unfortunately, these and the few other delights (like Chastain in jet black hair and Ramones t-shirts) don't make up for the onslaught of generic horror imagery and cheaply rendered CG. I mean... moths. Why does it always have to be moths?
[SEMI-SPOILER] The spirit that took care of the kids is actually some sort of trapped soul from the 19th century, or at least that's what you'll learn during the exposition break at the local library. (Doesn't anyone go to the library to pick up tax forms in the movies?) The specific “powers” or “rules” of 'Mama's' mythology in annoyingly vague. Basically, when something gets too close to the kids, the big floating mess of computer-generated imagery will find a not-too-gory way to kill you.
The film ends with a lot of histrionics and crying (on a cliff!) and I guarantee you half the theater will have their coats on by the time the surviving family members hug. While Chastain comes out relatively unscathed (did I mention she looks great in rock t-shirts?) it's impossible to connect with these characters on any real level. It's all too thin.
'Mama' is produced by Guillermo del Toro, as was 2011's similarly "child in peril"-themed 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.' That movie was better.
'Mama' premieres in theaters Friday, January 18.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.