*1/2 (out of four)
First Jennifer Lawrence had “House at the End of the Street.” Now her fellow best actress Oscar nominee, Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”), has her own PG-13-rated horror nonsense with “Mama,” which features yet another demon who's always either screaming or appearing and disappearing at random. Once again, it seems like a paranormal being knows it's starring in a movie, which doesn't enhance the scariness.
Produced by the overrated Guillermo Del Toro (“Blade II”), “Mama” opens as Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) kidnaps his young daughters, Victoria and Lilly and drives wildly on a snowy road, almost immediately skidding over a cliff. Somehow the three of them are fine and walk a few steps to a cabin, where Jeffrey’s attempt to kill Victoria, the older one, is thwarted by some kind of supernatural collection of blurry darkness and unkempt hair.
Though the family didn't travel very far, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) aren't found until five years later, when they creepily crawl around and possess minimal understanding of normal society. Actually, Victoria is totally back to normal once her uncle Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) gives her a pair of glasses, but Lilly eats bugs and sleeps under the bed. She also refers to someone called “mama,” a possibly imaginary being that a man (Daniel Kash) smart enough to get his doctorate but dumb enough to examine a potentially haunted cabin alone at night claims Victoria and Lilly created to keep them company.
None of this is good news for Lucas' better half, Annabel (Chastain), a bass player who doesn't want kids and whose commitment to music shines in her endless array of Misfits T-shirts. The behavior of both human and ghost in “Mama” constantly proves arbitrary. Sometimes Annabel fears that something has entered the house; other times she clearly sees something spooky and barely bats an eyelash. The noisy creature who occasionally pops out of the wall favors innocent playtime, violent body-snatching and gentle harmlessness toward an enemy without any consistent agenda.
I guess a ghost doesn't need to act logically, being a ghost and all. Still, the dull, cliche-filled “Mama,” which teases a twist that never comes, is the kind of movie in which you don't fear the demon in the main character's bed--you only envy that she gets to lay down.
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