Duration: 100 mins
Modern horror is living in the shadows (no pun intended) of its predecessors. At the same time the excellent Carrie is released on Blu-ray, we've got samey, generic and hugely uninventive movies of the genre being churned out faster than you can ask someone what their favourite scary movie is (Scream reference intended).
Jessica Chastain, for all her worth, is miscast as a thirtysomething punk guitarist, which has its appeal at first, but soon becomes clear it isn't the role for her (a quirky 'leave a message at the beep, fuck off' voicemail doesn't quite sit right), but as with the logic and tone of the film, quickly alters to become a jumper-wearing mother figure and covers up the (fake) tattoos she sports.
Mama, in fact, refers not to the role that Annabel (Chastain) fulfils after her other half, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), is granted custody of his nieces after a 5-year abandonment in the wilderness, but to a strange entity that supposedly looked after them during this time.
The premise decides to venture down the supernatural fantasy path, rather than remain grounded as so many of the more effective horrors tend to. Even though titles such as The Blair Witch Project indulge in a fictional evil, the story itself feels hugely believable, which is a rare thing nowadays.
Mama is no exception to the somewhat lazy standard of today; we're presented with a predictable set up and can quite easily foresee how it will end. The premise is initially rather intriguing, but doesn't convincingly play out how one hopes it should. For two girls to be scavenging like animals for most of their lives, they (well, the eldest in particular) adapts to normality unbelievably quick.
The progression of the story doesn't go anywhere fast. Instead, it sort of lingers around the girls and their rehabilitation into civility, and tries to focus on the torment and strain Annabel is under. It doesn't manage to convey this so well, even though there are some nice bonding moments between her and the girls, as well as a couple of tense, semi-scary moments to twitch over.
What lets the film down is the overuse of CGI and the ghostly nasty itself. Good horror films succeed with but a few key factors: subtlety and a less is more ethos. Here we are offered little of the first and absolutely none of the latter. The amount of screentime Mama is given really quashes the fear of the unknown. Seeing a computer generated character that develops into her own persona doesn't work in the realms of this type of film. We need mystery, need a lack of clarity and a certain call for underexposure, but are offered none.
It concludes just as you figure it will. It's too formulaic and cleanly structured, even though its middle is stodgy. As a film intended to scare, the CGI extinguishes a lot of the terror; instead conforming more to a horror devised to enjoyably pass the time with a group of friends, rather than one to have sleepless nights over.