It’s January, and we are beginning to head into the season of the annual movie release cycle I dread the most. The Oscar contenders have been released, the nominations announced, and movie screens are filled with the films that were released over the holiday or re-released to capitalize on their luck with the awards season.
What’s new in theaters, however, is the first crop of the studio doldrums, the horror or action films design to create quick buzz, fill seats opening weekend, and secure a DVD deal from their opening numbers. It makes the local marquee look a little schizophrenic. On the one hand, there’s Amour and Django Unchained playing in theaters three and four. In theaters five and six, why it’s Broken City and The Last Stand, featuring the unheralded return of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Also release this week, Mama, a movie that feels a little like a seasonal Frankenstein. On the one hand, it stars Jessica Chastain, one of the finest actors of her generation whose performance in Zero Dark Thirty has earned her a best actress nomination. On the other hand, Mama is exactly the kind of movie you would expect to hit theaters in late January: a panicked father embroiled in some Wall Street shenanigans rushes into the snowy countryside with his two daughters as his life crumbles around him. The car veers off the road (of course), they all survive (of course), and they find shelter in the conveniently located cottage near the crash site. All isn’t well, however. The place is haunted. A twist and a turn of the plot, and then it is five years later and the two girls are discovered, only they are now the feral adopted children of a ghoulish, monstrous mother.
At the top of the opening credits, we get the name Guillermo del Toro, that respected maker of visually stunning monster movies, who is an executive producer of the film whose life began as a del Toro idea for a short. Del Toro’s influence here is that Mama is a movie that cares about its monsters and its jumps and scares, but it is also looking for something of a heart. As the two girls are taken under the care of their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), Mama becomes in part a story about family, love, and the way trauma afflicts childhood. But it is mostly just about the creepy Mama ghost, who starts haunting Chastain’s Annabel.
The opening sequence tells you just about all you need to know about director Andres Muschietti’s handling of the material. A sketchy backstory provided through news overdubbing, Mama is full of hard-to-swallow plot points, and pointless plotlines. There’s a underdeveloped psychologist character (Daniel Kash); Lucas is a bit of a plot pawn. And then there’s that frustrating horror film cliché: whenever there’s a threatening situation, characters decide to explore things in the pitch dark of night.
Not to play to the name brand, but what kept me through Mama’s scattered and muddled horror-family story was Chastain, who plays a free spirited rocker, with jet black hair and a chip on her shoulder. She’s a reluctant stepmom who becomes their unexpected (sort of) protector. Chastain’s character is so vulnerable and unreliable that it is hard to believe this is the same actor who played the steely lead in Zero Dark Thirty.
Chastain’s performance is a consolation prize, hardly enough to justify suffering through this film. The rest of action unfolds with a serious of thuds, stumbling through a scare piece whose melodrama never quite dissolves into the overall solution. As a result we are neither spooked nor moved. Better get used to it; this the first ride in a few long months before the summer blockbusters hit.