Del Toro-backed horror flick Mama offers infantile frights.

Fright Night: You thought your childhood was bad? It was nothing compared to that of poor little Victoria (Megan Charpentier) whose mother was replaced by a hag-faced murderess from beyond in Mama.

Guillermo del Toro – the director of such minor masterpieces as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth – weakens his sphere of influence by producing a sorely underdeveloped horror movie that manufactures scares from the crudest of tropes. Sound effect shocks produce most of the film’s artificial jolts of fright. Del Toro endorses newcomer co-writer/director Andrés Muschietti’s efforts to engender audience gasps from a soulless computer-generated monster that makes the Hulk look lifelike by comparison.

The set-up is topical. A suburban father of two little girls returns home after murdering his two business partners. A bullet for wifey sends the crazed man driving like a maniac on icy roads with his kidnapped daughters pleading for mercy from the back seat. The film’s money-sequence comes when the car spins out of control, eventually sending it off the side of a snowy cliff into a steep ravine. The cinematography on display is exceptional. The film never again hits such a heart-pounding crescendo. 

Still able to walk, daddy carries his youngest girl Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) deep into the woods. His older daughter Victoria (Megan Charpentier) follows them into a disused cabin where someone or something lurks. Once inside the remote residence, the man makes a fire in the fireplace using a freshly broken chair for firewood. We can sense what’s coming next. He doesn’t know that he shares the space with a witchlike exterminating angel with wall crawling abilities. She is Mama. She will rescue the girls and raise them as her own.

Cut to several years later. The homicidal man’s brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Walldau) finds his nieces jumping and crawling like monsters. 

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Lucas and his Goth rock bass-playing girlfriend Annabel (played by an unrecognizable Jessica Chastain in dyed hair and heavy eyeliner) battle for custody in spite of the fact that neither seems to possess much maternal or paternal instinct. They live in a glorified man cave. Musical gear and big rusty signs adorn their bedroom. Lucas’s nasty sister seems better suited to take on the challenge of adapting the wild, spider-like children to the demands of civilized behavior. However, a ghost-in-the-machine plot device arrives via clinical psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who offers up a research-provided suburban house where the young couple can raise the girls under his supervision. The green-skinned, alien-faced Mama follows the girls to their new residence to set up shop. Her insect-mind intentions are unclear.

At best, Mama is a subpar PG-rated monster movie. At worst, it represents a desperate grasp for relevance by a once-inspired filmmaker [Guillermo del Toro] relegated to producing entry-level films for far less talented auteurs.

MAMA (2) • Directed by Andres Muschietti • Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau• Rated PG-13 • 100 min. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.

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