Horror directors today are blessed, or cursed — maybe haunted — by their idols. “Mama” is directed by Spanish newcomer Andrew Muschietti, based on his short film of the same name and yet it bears producer Guillermo del Toro’s distinct watermarks: troubled children, their troubled home life, an unwilling stepmother and the lurking terror she sees on the periphery but the children bask in, vulnerable, believing. All this framed in the innocuous terms of a fairy tale, “ONCE UPON A TIME,” a phrase traced in dirt at the start of “Mama” as if the film is our mama telling bedtime stories, inviting nightmares alongside dreams.
The nightmare on screen begins in 2008 as a pair of moppets, Victoria and Lily, are stolen away by their father into the Virginia Mountains. He’s lost everything in the recession, killed their mother, and upon finding a secluded cabin he expects to kill the three of them too. Shaking, crying, he prepares to shoot Virginia first … when ink-scaled hands whip out and snap his neck.
Murder-suicide becomes murder-adoption. Those same hands shortly give the girls a cherry to eat, teaching us Mama’s first and only lesson: the hand that feeds also takes life away, and the line between each is brittle and thin.
We watch “Mama” for Victoria and Lily: their cute, Scandinavian faces courtesy of Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse. As they spend five years “alone” in the woods they’re able to cloud their skin, crust their hair and dart around on all fours like raccoons without revolting us beyond empathy. Children lost to nature (and super-nature) are infinitely fascinating. They’re what we might have become if imagination usurped our parents’ role, and to parents this is a horrible thought, that the Boogeyman is another mother vying with them for control.
This is “Mama”’s kernel of truth, more than what exists in most horror — bleak and blindly nihilistic — and it gives this film a real sense of fear beyond the merely shocking (though there’s plenty of that here too). Once the children are returned to society, placed in the custody of their father’s brother and wife, the fight ignites as human and inhuman wrangle for their rightful claim to these babies, themselves not passive bystanders but active, invested parties. The film’s best moments split us painfully between each camp and forces us to embrace every one, even the crippled beast from beyond the grave.
But the film quivers; we’re jolted from a perfect, nighttime yarn on par with “Coraline,” “Poltergeist,” del Toro’s and Spielberg’s best by confused storytelling. When we should be focusing on the children and their shadowy Mama, the film shifts gears to its adults, the least interesting pack of 20-and-ups ever gathered. Jessica Chastain is the film’s main draw as the children’s new mother Annabelle, if only because going from “Zero Dark Thirty” to here there’s brief novelty in finding the plain, plucky Maya gussied up in Hot Topic fashion, channeling Joan Jett’s still-living spirit. She’s the reluctant step-mom we first meet praising God when her pregnancy test turns up negative, a punk-rock bassist and so, like, not a stay-home mom. The lesson she’ll learn is obvious.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays dead father Jeffrey and his more amiable brother Lucas, and in each case the film finds ways to dispatch him from the proceedings. Daniel Kash takes up far too much screen time as a psychiatrist invested in the children’s case, convinced Mama is just a dissociative personality until – surprise! – he blunders blindly into her domain, reenacting a scare ripped curiously from an online Doritos promo. He serves mainly to spoil the mystery behind Mama a fourth of the way through the film. Later, a subplot involving a custody battle between Chastain and the girls’ great-aunt is truncated by Mama herself, saving us the grief of hearing Jane Moffat’s hollow Tilda Swinton impression.
Other problems plague “Mama.” Antonio Riestra’s cinematography deprives the world of any color but dusty-blue, a far cry from the kaleidoscope gardens and wine-red foyers in the other del Toro-produced film, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” an otherwise inferior work. The pacing is contorted like its titular freak. The usual suspects march past — jump scares, Banshee faces, Gothic symbolism — as rote as they were last year.
But there’s enough genius, however inadvertent and brief, to justify “Mama” and set it apart from its horror pen-mates. In another film, showing the monster would be bad form; we’d have sacrificed our fear for knowledge. Here, when we meet Mama from head to twitching toe, there’s a note of bittersweet majesty, something both sublime and frightening as we come to recognize in Mama bits of ourselves. “Mama” ends with most its superficial horror scraped clean, only to reveal beneath it a layer of startling emotion inimical to cheap scares. Horror buffs, even fans of del Toro, might be peeved. It’s not what they expected. But why satisfy expectation when dealing with the most unexpected of all, the unexplainable?