Guillermo del Toro is more a brand these days than a director. Though he has a sci-fi movie called Pacific Rim in theaters this summer, it will be his first time behind the camera since the ho-hum Hellboy sequel in 2008, and seven full years since Pan’s Labyrinth gave him a solid platform.
But his bread is buttered by producing (or “presenting”) gothic horror films, the kind that creep their way under your skin instead of shocking you with gore. That’s the blueprint for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and The Orphanage, and it’s also the battle plan for Andrés Muschietti’s Mama.
The thing that goes bump in the night is a 19th-century ghost, but what does she want and why does she haunt Victoria and her sister, Lily (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse)? The girls were kidnapped by their father at ages 3 and 1 and taken to a cabin in the woods. Dad was, shall we say, unwelcome in the cabin, so for five years the girls lived as feral creatures, scrounging up whatever sustenance they could.
Found and taken in by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain), the girls have trouble adjusting to a normal life. Oh … and then Mama starts to make the rounds.
The film plays lots of familiar genre notes, most of them not terribly well. There’s the creepy kid, the haunted house, the people who ignore every sign of trouble and the patented exposition machine/tweedy psychiatrist. There’s also more to absorb than there needs to be, like a custody battle, an extra kid and, really, even the uncle.
Muschietti nailed the atmosphere for this kind of thing, and there are a couple great, well-placed spook ’ems, but most of Mama just regurgitates the weakening brand ethos of Guillermo del Toro.