There were fears this hokey adoption-from-hell chiller might be more damaging to Jessica Chastain’s Oscar prospects than any of Zero Dark Thirty’s controversies, but let’s be forgiving: it’s exactly the type of project an up-and-coming actress might take in a bid to prove her range. Stuck with an unflattering black crop and bad tattoos, she’s playing Annabel, a rock guitarist whose hunky beau (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) elects to take in two young nieces after their father’s sudden disappearance. A commendably mature move – except that these skittering foundlings have fallen under the protective spirit of a murderess helpfully referred to as “Mad” Edith.
As Guillermo del Toro’s semi-meaningless executive producer credit suggests, Mama clearly wants to import the restrained seriousness of recent Spanish-language horror smashes for subtitle-resistant audiences. Yet while its finale gestures in the direction of something emotional, getting there involves mucho familiar multiplex filler: loud screeches atop the soundtrack, and some pretty silly business involving the girls’ sinister way with wax crayons. Chastain hints at a toughness that isn’t a thousand miles away from her Oscar role, but her smarts are wasted on a largely reactive character. Not embarrassing, just terribly ordinary.