Andrés Muschietti’s Mama begins with the pledge (a threat, really) of a “once upon a time,” yet any resemblance this inane spooker may have to a fairy tale begins and ends with its prehistoric notions of motherhood and the maternal instinct. The premise isn’t even worthy of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, who will apparently lend his name to any film as long as it fulfills its quota of moths and vulvic openings. Mama, the shrill ghost of a shrill nutjob who takes a flying leap off a cliff with her newborn, lives inexplicably in a state of limbo inside a cottage in the woods known as Helvetia, possibly named after (according to Wikipedia) the female personification of Switzerland. It’s there, amid unfortunately unsalvageable Eames-era furniture, that the possibly Swiss miss prevents a modern-day crazy from killing himself and his daughters, taking them in as her own and raising them as cherry-eating wild children—that is, until the girls are found some five years later by their uncle and the wraith is forced to tear shit up in the ’burbs.
As necessitated by any horror film delivered unto us during the depressing doldrums of January, the only craft behind the scares are their decibel levels. The sight of young Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) contorted into a grotesque approximation of Mama’s own warped physique does cast a chill, though her longing for the comfort of a mother’s touch, whether its Mama’s or her uncle’s rock-chick girlfriend’s, lacks for poignancy. Forget the absurdity of Mama trying to suck the life out of Annabel (Jessica Chastain) while simultaneously giving her an all-access pass to her 19th-century backstory via dreams, the ghost is less grieving mother (“an emotion bent out of shape” according to Daniel Kash’s psychiatrist) than crazy ex-girlfriend. Even more insulting is how brazenly the filmmakers prop up Annabel, in all her tattooed, Heineken-swilling, black licorice-snacking glory, as a flaming denial of woman’s presumptively innate sense of motherhood. In the end, what makes Mama genuinely shocking is the realization that it isn’t even meant to goose us so much as it exists to make women privy to the alarm on their biological clocks.