"A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape" - it's a nice thought, neatly expressed halfway through Argentine director Andrés Muschietti's debut feature, but it's one that Mama doesn't really follow up on, preferring to deploy well-worn scare tactics instead of emotional layering. Expanding on his award-winning 2008 short with the helping hand of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, Mr. Muschietti starts Mama pretty well, by keeping close to his vest the exact nature of the supernatural presence that has been taking care of sisters Victoria and Lilly Desange (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse), after their deranged father killed their mother and whisked them away into the depths of Washington State.

     Found after five years living on their own in a remote log cabin, the girls are returned to civilization and handed over to their paternal uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his rock musician girlfriend Annabel (an unrecognisable Jessica Chastain). But the spectral visitation they call Mama seems to have come with them, as is made clear in a superb shot showing Annabel going about her business on one side of the frame while, on the other, Lilly plays with the ghostly presence. Sadly, that's about the smartest Mama ever gets.

     The story openly hinges on the awakening of a maternal instinct in Annabel, who was reluctant to take on the girls to begin with, and on the girls' acceptance her - much in the way of previous Del Toro projects such as his own Pan's Labyrinth and J. A. Bayona's The Orphanage. But Mr. Muschietti dials down that emotional side in favor of a squarely conventional horror film about getting rid of the "other" mother unhelped by the below-par effects for the now-materialized Mama (played by Javier Botet). The result wastes a couple of good ideas and the earnest performances of its cast in a series of basic scripting problems (particularly in regard to the timeframes of the plot) and misjudged tonal shifts - especially in the final act, whose wrap-up demands a stylistic precision the director can't muster - that literally throw away what was so promising about the premise.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenplay: Neil Cross, Mr. Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti, from a story by Mr. and Ms. Muschietti
Cinematography: Antonio Riestra (colour)
Music: Fernando Velázquez
Designer: Anastasia Marano
Costumes: Luis Sequeira
Editor: Michele Conroy
Visual effects: Edward J. Taylor IV, Aaron Weintraub
Producers: J. Miles Dale, Ms. Muschietti (De Milo Productions and Toma 78 in association with The Movie Network and Movie Central)
Spain/Canada, 2013, 100 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), March 1st 2013


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