Review: 'Mama' more teasing than shocking horror
This film image released by Universal Pictures shows Jessica Chastain in a scene from "Mama." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A playful, elegantly made little horror film, "Mama" teasingly sustains a game of hide-and-seek as it tantalizes the audience with fleeting apparitions of the title character while maintaining interest in two deeply disturbed little orphan girls. Being sold primarily on the name of its godfather, Guillermo del Toro, this Canadian-Spanish co-production from Universal is refreshingly mindful of the less-is-more horror guidelines employed by 1940s master Val Lewton, not to mention Japanese ghost stories, but the PG-13 rating might prove too restrictive for the gory tastes of male core genre fans. Still, less bloodthirsty female teens could make up the difference at the box office, as the film provokes enough tension and gasps to keep susceptible viewers grabbing their armrests or the arms of those next to them.
In essence, "Mama" represents a throwback and a modest delight for people who like a good scare but prefer not to be terrorized or grossed out. With fine special effects and a good sense of creating a mood and pacing the jolts, Andy Muschietti shows a reassuringly confident hand for a first-time director, pulling off some fine visual coups through smart camera placement and cutting, and not taking the whole thing so seriously that it becomes overwrought.
This film image released by Universal Pictures shows Megan Charpentier in a scene from "Mama." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)
Prologue shows a distraught father, apparently devastated after a financial setback, driving his tiny daughters up snowy mountain roads to a vacant small summer house in the woods. Just as he is about to shoot the older girl, the man is prevented from doing so by some kind of beast which is vaguely glimpsed by the youngster but not clearly; in an astute subjective visual coup, she only sees its indistinct outline because she has her glasses off.
Five years later, Victoria (Megan Carpenter) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) are discovered; miraculously, they have somehow survived by themselves, although they look like feral beasts, hopping around on all fours and the little one, especially, scarcely seeming human. Taking them in, despite highly dubious qualifications to care for such demanding cases, are the dead father's handsome artist brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his punky grrrl band girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, sporting tats and a haircut that's somewhere between Joan Jett and Liza Minnelli).