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Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her sister, Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), are near-feral orphans in the horror thriller Mama. (Universal Pictures)

'Mama': A Good Old-Fashioned Horror Movie

Jan 18, 2013 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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As unwilling foster parent Annabel, Jessica Chastain is the flesh-and-blood figure at the core of a story about conflicting maternal instincts.

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I was weaned on horror movies and love them inordinately, but the genre has gone to the dogs — and to the muscle-bound werewolves, hormonal vampires, flesh-eating zombies, machete-wielding psychos, etc. It's also depressing how most modern horror pictures have unhappy nihilist endings in which everyone dies and the demons pop back up, unvanquished — partly because studios think happy endings are too soft, but mostly because they need their monsters for so-called franchises.

But Mama is an entertaining step in the right, which is to say backward, direction. No, it's not original — it doesn't drill for fresh nerves. And the subtext has problems I'll talk about later. But it's a good old-fashioned ghost story, shapely and poetic, beautifully fashioned. And scary — let's not forget scary.

The director is first-timer Andy Muschietti, and the producer is Mexico-born horror maven Guillermo del Toro, who moves back and forth between popcorn genre pictures and surreal fantasies with imperiled child characters, among them Pan's Labyrinth.

Mama hinges on imperiled children, too. Lilly and Victoria are little blond sisters who've spent five years alone in a cabin in the middle of the woods after being kidnapped by their estranged father, who'd just murdered their mother. He doesn't stick around — I won't say why. The girls are finally found by trackers hired by their uncle and, at first, they're barely recognizable as human. They hiss and claw and scamper around on all fours. The younger, Lilly, was barely a toddler when she entered that cabin. Whisked away from it, she keeps calling out, "Mama."

The girls' uncle, Lucas, is played by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who cut a fine, romantic presence as the villain in last year's terrific Norwegian thriller Headhunters. But it's Lucas' live-in girlfriend, Annabel, who's the protagonist. She's played by rising — risen, really — star Jessica Chastain, her hair cut sharp and dyed raven-black, her eyes rimmed with mascara. You can't take your eyes off her, which is a good thing, because you spend a lot of time following her down dark corridors.

Annabel is a Goth rocker who doesn't want kids — we know this because in her first scene she takes a pregnancy test and breathes a sigh of relief when it's negative. So it's quite the challenge to care for two feral girls at the behest of a hovering therapist who thinks the kids need a stable home. Annabel makes her discomfort plain when the girls are delivered to her and Lucas' new suburban house, supplied by a hospital for occasions like these — you know, the feral-kids-need-a-stable-home occasions.

The movie will ultimately come down to whether Annabel can bond with these girls and, in the process, discover her own maternal instincts — the only effective weapon against the title character. I won't tell you who or what Mama is or where she came from or what she wants — but she's a ghost to conjure with cinema's eeriest, a spidery thing with a face that's a dry-rotted mask of pain and rage.

As in many modern horror films, a lot of Mama's scares come with fortissimo musical exclamation marks. But others are the result of director Muschietti's witty staging, with sight gags that make you laugh and then gasp, like the shot in which little Lilly is playing tug of war with her off-screen sister, Victoria and — oh, wait. There's Victoria walking down the hall. So who ... ? Oh.

Fernando Velazquez's music is deliciously hammy, evoking nursery rhymes and funeral processions. And there are swirling, swooping, eye-popping expressionist dream sequences — visions, really, telepathically induced by a jealous and very volatile spirit.

The biggest problem is that the central question — whether selfish punk Annabel will find her inner mom and save the girls — is beyond old-fashioned: It's reactionary. But the heart-rending operatic climax sweeps you up in a more complicated question: whether either or both of these little girls will forsake a devoted but demonic psycho Mama for one who might be less constant but won't suck out anyone's innards.

I was guessing right till the end, which is not only satisfying — there's no potential sequel in sight.

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