Guillermo del Toro is fast becoming the Steven Spielberg of horror. The emphasis, at the end of a number of the films he has directed or produced, on the rescuing of some sort of family unit, whatever the cost, is more worrying than any of the terrors unleashed on the audience. Mama, directed by Andrés Muschietti and produced by del Toro, is a case in point: its conclusion conveniently gets rid of the member of the family who can’t be made to fit in – just like the del Toro-produced Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark effected some sort of reconciliation between two relatives by sacrificing the extra person in the family.
Like many of del Toro’s films, Mama is a dark fairy tale – maybe even more explicitly so than his previous offerings, opening as it does with ‘Once upon a Time’. When his two missing nieces are found in the forest after five years, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his rock-chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) take them in, under the supervision of their psychologist, Dr Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). But the adults gradually begin to realise that Mama, the imaginary carer the girls had invented to survive in the forest, may not be so imaginary after all.
Although the film has its moments (the discovery of the feral children in the cabin; the dream sequence that reveals the tragic events of the past; the scene, both sinister and humorous, in which Lilly, the younger girl, plays with an off-screen Mama), it is marred by implausible plot developments and, most importantly for a horror film, fails to deliver any scares. Despite telling a story that should pull on the audience’s heartstrings, the film is unable to generate any strong emotional attachment to the characters. This may be partly due to the misjudged casting: Chastain is not credible as a rock chick, her character is embarrassingly clichéd and contrived, and there is a total lack of chemistry between her and Coster-Waldau. The best actor in the film is the youngest: Isabelle Nélisse is ambiguous and troubling as the six-year-old Lilly, disturbingly animal-like as she scuttles on all fours, and both creepy and sweet in her attachment to Mama.
It does not help that the film echoes other motifs and character types already seen in films bearing del Toro’s name. As in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Mama features a woman forced to take on a maternal role to children who are her boyfriend’s responsibility. Like Julia’s Eyes, it has a scene in which a character uses the flash on a camera to see their attacker – in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the same device is used to keep the monsters away. The recurrence of motifs in a creator’s work is natural, but here the effect is less of stylistic and thematic coherence than of unimaginative repetition.