It gives us a long back-story opening, and brings up much more back story as the tale progresses.
It over-explains. It reveals its supernatural menace, not just in glimpses, but full on, and early on. There’s never any doubt that this might be all in somebody’s head.
But “Mama” is a reminder that the best chills don’t involve chainsaws, blood and guts. Horror is a product of empathy, of, in this case, fearing for the safety of small children and the reluctant 20something rock musician (Jessica Chastain) stuck with caring for them.
A prologue tells us of a tragedy. A distraught father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) flees financial scandal by shooting people, grabbing his children and fleeing into the snowy mountains of Virginia. They crash, he drags the innocent little girls to a remote cabin, and just as he is about to finish his horror – something happens to him.
Cut to five years later, and searchers finally find the girls. They’re feral, non-verbal, skittering around on all fours like rats. Their artist Uncle Lukas (Coster-Waldau) is ready to take them in. His bass playing girlfriend, Annabell (Chastain) is not.
“Don’t call me that,” she says with a smile when Victoria (Megan Charpentier) calls her “Mom.” She’s not. “This isn’t my job,” she tells Lukas.
But thanks to financial arrangements made by the conniving psychotherapist (Daniel Kash) who sees glory in their case, the D.C. couple moves to a free house in Richmond and tries to bring the girls into the real world. Not easy, seeing as how Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) barely speaks. She only gurgles, giggles, grunts, eats cherries and sleeps with tree limbs.
And then there’s whatever kept them alive for five years in the woods. How does it feel about civilizing them?
Producer Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) must have had a hand in the production values, here, which are state of the art. The direction, music and editing are masterfully manipulative. But what makes “Mama” work are the performances co-writer/director Andres “Andy” Muschietti got from the little girls – who are open-faced marvels, conflicted about where their loyalties lie, with “Don’t call me ‘Mom,’” or their “real Mama.”
And Chastain, far from slumming in a horror film out just as she’s fighting for that “Zero Dark Thirty” Oscar, adds another gold star to her resume. Annie is unhappy, ill-equipped for parenting, stand-offish and Chastain makes her sexy, immature and yet somehow sympathetic.
Horror is all about that short-circuit the screen’s technical manipulations cause in our brain, so this isn’t high art. But “Mama” is easily the most moving, most chilling ghost story since “Insidious,” an emotional tale efficiently and affectingly told.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements
Credits: Directed by Andy Muschietti, written by Neil Cross, Andy Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:40