The name of Guillermo del Toro has become akin to a horror talisman, from his own work on the two Hellboy films, Blade II and most importantly Pan’s Labyrinth, but also from his championing of the work of others, Troy Nixon’s 2011 update of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark which del Toro wrote and produced, and this debut feature of director Andrés Muschietti, expanded from his own short, executive produced by del Toro. Unfortunately, on the basis of these two projects, the reputation of that talisman will very soon be tarnished.
Steeped in tragedy even before the opening frames, the financial meltdown of 2008 being the trigger for the immediate events of the film, businessman Jeffrey has already murdered his partners and wife before arriving home to take his daughters Victoria and Lilly, bundling them into the car and driving into the snowy wastes. Losing control of the car, it plunges down an embankment, and with the children he moves further into the woods where he finds an abandoned cabin. His intention is to kill them then himself, but before he can, a spectral figure intervenes, and in that instant derails the film, abandoning any hope of engaging a vaguely critical audience and settling for amateur schlock.
Fast forwarding five years, Jeffrey’s brother Lucas is still engaged in the search for his missing nieces, while his rock chick girlfriend Annabel plays bass for her garage band. Why, with no sign of Jeffrey or the children in half a decade, the search is focusing on local woodlands, when for all the evidence Lucas has his brother could be living anonymously in Saudi Arabia, is unexplained, nor how the wreck of the car has lain undiscovered so close to a main road in all this time, but finally thanks to a bloodhound who can track a scent so strong it lasts five winters, the children, now eight and six, are located.
In the care of Doctor Gerald Dreyfuss, they are reunited with their uncle; Victoria has retained her use of language, while Lilly is almost feral, rejecting shoes, preferring to eat from the floor. The professional standing of Doctor Dreyfuss is questionable, as is his funding source; in a custody battle with the children’s aunt Jean, he is willing to provide a mansion to Lucas and Annabel and his recommendation Lucas should be their guardian if he can have continued unrestricted access to the pair.
No questions are asked how the girls survived so long in the wild, and it is no surprise that soon strange things begin to happen, with Victoria insisting that the deeds were enacted by Mama. While a mystery could ensue, the question of whether the actions are those of the children or of a supernatural benefactor, and the nature of that possible presence, because the answer was provided within the opening five minutes the subsequent ninety five are an exercise in watching the characters catch up with what the audience already knows, a process thrown further off kilter by the parallel investigation of Doctor Dreyfuss being several scenes ahead of the sister’s traumatised guardians.
Any interest at all in the film comes in the forms of the chameleon-like Jessica Chastain, unrecognisable as Annabel, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the dual roles of Jeffrey and Lucas and Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse as Victoria and Lilly, all of them utterly immersed and convincing in performances this botch of a film aimed at an audience of limited imagination does not deserve, every bump in the night accompanied by a histrionic appearance by Mama, an overwrought computer generated Dementor on loan from Hogwarts, inappropriately hilarious as she streaks across the wooden floorboards in her frightwig stealth mode.
Composer Fernando Velázquez does his best, channelling elements of Elfman and Amityville, but the efforts are not matched by costume designer Luis Sequeira who has seemingly purchased two t-shirts for Chastain and only one for the Clifton Falls librarian, also known as “exposition lady,” in charge of an archive to match that which contains the Lost Ark of the Covenant, and is in fact quite possibly larger than the building it resides within.
Muschietti, whose script was enhanced by Luther writer Neil Cross, does himself no favours by missing obvious avenues of connection (Annabel is a musician – why does she not attempt to reach the children through song?), instead having characters stumble around in gloom and trek through uncharted wilderness to reach the cabin in the dead of night, and in the end steals a camera flash illuminated scene from the superiorLos Ojos de Julia, also produced by del Toro, and further back, the motion of Mama from the spiderwalk scene of The Exorcist, but where once it was created with craft and ingenuity, here the ghost of horror past is lifeless computer animation.