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One glance at Guillermo del Toro’s filmography gives the sneaking suspicion that the Mexican wunderkind really hates children. So it's no surprise that the latest film to get his seal of approval is Mama, a potboiler about feral children stalked by a bloodthirsty apparition. Del Toro flung the film into development based on a short by Andrés Muschietti, which was almost like del Toro fan fiction in its masterfully creepy aesthetic and terrifying titular monster. Alas, Muschietti's feature-length Mama loses its footing about halfway through, taking what begins as a spectacularly creepy, minimalist slow-burner and thrusting it into cliché. The film opens with a deranged father who, having killed several co-workers and his wife, kidnaps his daughters. But he careens off the road and meets an unfortunate fate, leaving his little girls on their own. Five years later, we meet the girls' uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who discovers that little Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) and Victoria (Megan Charpentier) have survived essentially as animals, with Lily snarling and crawling on all fours. The film is strongest when it follows the girls’ social reacclimation and psychoanalysis, which reveals that they invented an imaginary protector named Mama—only, of course, she's not so imaginary, and she’s not too keen that the girls have warmed to their adoptive mother (a gothed-up and surprisingly droll Jessica Chastain). As Mama makes her presence known, the film is stomach-churningly tense, with ace sound design. Then people start getting stupid, and the second half of the film teeters into the most macabre episode of Scooby Doo ever. It's also at this point that the ghost ceases to be scary. In early appearances, she's a ghostly shape whose hair and clothing billow as if underwater (a nod to Devil's Backbone). But then the film grows impatient, and suddenly Mama is front and center, looking like test footage from The Grudge and less interested in terrorizing the characters than in popping her head directly before the camera. Could it be that Mama's real goal is to make the ultimate photobomb? If so, nicely done. Either way, the over-reliance on special effects and the sacrifice of actual dread earned through organic scares make Mama land with a thud.
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  • Release Date: Tuesday, January 15, 2013
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13
  • Critic's Score: C+
  • Watch the trailer

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