Jessica Chastain’s presence in January Dumping Grounds schlock–at the same time she’s winning her first major awards, somewhat amusingly–may seem inexplicable. But it’s not quite. Mama is no ordinary horror programmer, but one executive produced (if not written or directed) by Guillermo Del Toro, a name by now synonymous with crazy creature designs and muted chills. Both qualities are present and, combined with an actress of certified kickassedness, they conspire to give off the illusion of a thoughtful genre entry–that is until, like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the whole thing falls apart, and the spell breaks.
Indeed, Mama turns out to be a relatively non-gory (so to speak) twist on the story type in which a grump gradually learns to love the annoying moppets he or she once despised. Chastain’s Annabel is a tattooed punk bassist introduced celebrating a negative pregnancy test. Naturally, she winds up with brats anyway: Her boyfriend (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is suddenly awarded custody of his deceased brother’s two little girls, who went missing five years prior and were found in a remote cabin by themselves.
The sight of them reduced to feral, snarling beasts is the film’s creepiest, even considering the actual monster: a spirit that materializes from a soot-like substance into a banshee whose hair drifts as though floating eternally in water. This specter has a secret byzantine backstory, because of course it does, but the film seems only superficially interested in it, as it does with Annabel’s evolving maternal bent, which winds up requiring only a mere attitude adjustment.
Director Andrés Muschietti has elongated his 2008 short film of the same name, and it feels it: Ultimately slender and anticlimactic, it starts off with good, if not great, promise. He’s a not-bad stylist, too: a slave to flickering lightbulbs, shocking movements and LOUD NOISES, he’s nonetheless effective when calmed down, and his ghost’s movements achieve true beauty through grace. Chastain’s grouchier-than-usual interpretation of the scream queen is hugely welcome, and as ever, she’s even better when not speaking–when she’s doing household chores or simply staring. If it’s worth little else, Mama functions as a reminder that she’s not only a great actress, but a great screen performer. The camera loves her, even with a bum hairdo.