Jessica Chastain better hope that Academy members have already cast their votes or will opt to see "The Last Stand" this weekend. Why? Because her latest role in the supernatural horror film "Mama" could possibly kill her Oscar chances.
Marching under the production banner of Guillermo del Toro, "Mama" fails to channel the producer-director’s fantastic contributions to the horror genre. Instead, it tarnishes his ballooning reputation and respectable track record. Lately, del Toro has produced horror films by first-time directors; this time it's Andres Muschietti. Adapted from the short "Mama," which Muschiette also wrote and directed, the freshman director seems so focused on emulating del Toro’s creepy atmospherics and visual flair that he ends up sacrificing the storytelling, as well as the very reason we're paying to see this film in the first place. Where are the scares?
"Mama" begins with a troubled father Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka Jamie f'ing Lannister from "Game of Thrones") suffering a meltdown and murdering his co-workers and wife. Jeffrey takes his two young daughters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) on the lam, using a cabin deep in the woods (though it honestly felt like a few hundred yards from the road) as a hideout. Within minutes, the father falls victim to the cabin's supernatural occupant (the titular Mama), leaving the kids to be fed and raised by her.
Cut to five years later, when the girls -- who have become feral -- are found by a search party and brought back to civilization. They are adopted after by their father's twin Lucas (Coster-Waldau once again) and his reluctant Joan Jett-wannabe girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain). Despite their obvious psychological damage, the courts deem it okay for these Gollum-esque girls to move into a home with their new guardians. It's at this point that the setup starts to feel completely mismanaged. Wouldn’t there be a worldwide media event if two young girls survived on their own? You know Oprah would be all over this s---!
The malevolent Mama moves in as well, continuing to spend time with the children, who miss her too, especially Lilly. In time, the childrens' affections and loyalties begin to transfer to Lucas and Annabel. Mama becomes resentful and lashes out, harming everyone who threatens her relationship with the girls. Soon, the only person left to protect the children is the tatted-up, Misfits tee-clad girlfriend, Annabel.
By introducing her via a negative home pregnancy test celebration, followed by a brief exploration of her career as a beer-swilling bassist in a punk rock brand, audiences are immediately made to see Annabel as a nihilist toward the responsibility of being a parent. As the film progresses, it’s totally transparent that her attachment toward the girls will grow and her newly found maternal instincts will keep her from running out the door. Though, I wish she had taken the latter option -- not only does the gifted actress look bored, but Chastain's character itself is offensively stereotypical.
Borrowing elements from numerous horror movies, including "The Woman in Black" and "The Grudge," "Mama" doesn’t have a single moment where something feels fresh and/or original. The majority of the scare tactics, which are too few and far between, are cheaply deployed. Classic clichés of "don't go in the closet" or "don't look under the bed" are repeated to the point of exhaustion. And the titular ghost at hand is bogged down by the ridiculous looking CGI, and at times, resembles a resurrected Olive Oyl from "Popeye."
Chastain can be forgiven for this misstep into the horror genre because we have seen it before with other successful actresses, notably Halle Berry in "Gothika" and Hilary Swank in "The Reaping." But would it have killed her to wait until she had an Oscar before proceeding right into the paycheck films?
Now, if you will excuse me…I have to watch "Zero Dark Thirty" again, if only to clear my head and throw "Mama" from the brain.
Rating: Too Drab (1 out of 4 stars)
By Tyler Harrell