If you’re going to have a ghost in your movie, it might be a good thing to present a viable alternative to that ghost. “Mama,” however, presents a battle between two not very good options before crumbling like a sheet on a string.
In an overly convoluted setup that resonates with the potential for Stephen King-style creepiness, a radio announcer reports on an office shooting in which a bad stock turn caused an employee to kill three people.
We then see the shooter return home to his daughters, ages 3 and 1. He puts the girls in the car and takes off on an icy mountain road.
Careening off a cliffside, the car is wrecked and the three stumble out to find a spooky hovel nestled in the woods. Dad winds up leaving, but the little girls stay, and are found five years later by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The children are feral and frightening, scuttling on all fours as they screech and chew on bark.
Once the now 8-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her 6-year-old sister Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) get to a psychiatrist (Daniel Kash), who sees them as a potential ticket to fame, Uncle Lucas introduces the cleaned-up kids to his girlfriend, Annabel (“Zero Dark Thirty” Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain).
Annabel is a tattooed punkster who plays in a band and wants nothing to do with kids. So when two show up out of nowhere, Annabel scowls through her raccoon eye shadow. But it gets worse. Turns out the girls were raised in the cabin by a ghost they call Mama, who floats ethereally on the air and tends to go into and out of walls, accompanied by butterflies. As the shrink gets closer to discovering who Mama was, Annabel is about to face some tough love.
That’s a lot of plot just to get to the point we know “Mama” is heading toward: a showdown between maternal instincts. There are other tangents. Dreams reveal messages from the dead, and there are several visits to a dusty library. Expect, too, the usual household “accidents,” which kill time as director Andy Muschietti adds shocking cuts and screeching sound effects.
That’s unnecessary, since the minimal beauty in “Mama” is in the tickling way the ghouly title character flits around the edge of the screen, never here nor there. But a little of that goes a long way.
Unfortunately, Annabel isn’t exactly a pleasant haven for Victoria or Lily to run to. Played by Chastain with a snarky sneer and a dark wig, the actress who’s given such varied turns in the last two years seems to be slumming.
She’s not, of course. Chastain is just left hanging in “Mama,” a victim of a bulky plot and in danger of being the lesser of two evils.