There are a lot of adjectives that could describe Mama, but “subtle” certainly isn’t one of them. The film blatantly states its intentions in the first five seconds, as the words “once upon a time” slither across the screen in creepy-yet-childlike penmanship. Clearly, one can infer that director Andres Muschietti’s film is meant to be a pastiche of horror film and fairy tale (a common pairing in the work of executive producer, Guillermo Del Toro). The first few minutes that follow clearly adhere to this idea- suburban dad Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, of Game of Thrones fame) loses it and attempts to murder his daughters and then himself, but is stopped by a monstrous spirit that kills him but spares (and subsequently raises) the two little girls. Years later, the long-lost daughters are finally found, and their aunt and uncle (Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau once again) are tasked with bringing them back into civilization, unaware that the titular spirit may have plans of its own.
Fairy-tale elements overflow throughout the early portions of the film. Hunstmen stumble upon a witch’s cabin hidden in the woods. Coster-Waldau plays a pair of father figures, one good, one evil. The film goes as far as to name the family dog Hansel, just to cement it in our minds that Mama should be viewed as a bedtime story gone horribly awry. Unfortunately, the further that story progresses, the less intelligent it becomes. The fairy tale elements quickly fall by the wayside, and Mama soon settles into a familiar horror house movie rhythm, letting both the characters and the story drift into a series of familiar cliches. Before long, Mama becomes about little else besides frightening the audience.
The scary bits are plentiful, though, and satisfying in their own right. Despite an over-reliance on the creepy little girl that appears onscreen with a jolt (a dead horse that’s been beaten beyond recognition), Mama is entertaining and often extremely clever when it comes to the spooky stuff. A sequence where a pitch-black room is lit only by the intermittent flashbulb of a camera and the image of a little girl smiling at a monster that’s just off-screen stand out in particular- the golden rule of horror is to never show the monster in all its glory until the very end, and Muschietti continually finds new and clever ways to obscure the ghoulish Mama from our sight.
By the time the film is over, however, it ends up feeling a bit hollow. Mama starts off trying to make a statement, be it about fairy tales or the comparison between horror film and custody battle (in the creature’s oddly maternal relationship with the two little girls), but it shies away from the depth required to reach some kind of profound meaning. On the surface, it’s a very good film- aesthetically pleasing, with a memorable monster and plenty of scares. But without anything meaningful to say, it remains a movie that can be seen once, enjoyed, then quickly forgotten.