Remember when horror movies didn't rely so much on turning your stomach to set your hair on end?
Remember when blood and gore, lousy camerawork and paranormal high jinks weren't the names of the game, and audiences could get scared without also getting revolted?
"Mama"★ ★ ★
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Isabelle NÚlisse, Megan Charpentier
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Other: A Universal Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for violence. 100 minutes
"Mama" is something of a throwback, and at times a stunning one. At its best, this state-of-the-art modern ghost story -- another scare saga from the Guillermo del Toro factory -- recalls those earlier, less bloody days of fear and (not necessarily) loathing, when horror films were made for adults.
Filled with elegant, spooky images of otherworldly phantasms plaguing real-seeming people, the movie spins a yarn of two little feral girls, Victoria and Lilly, left in the forest in a shabby cabin after their distraught father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) freaks out, following a financial wipeout, and tries to kill them both before taking his own life.
The girls, however, are saved by a sinister-looking wraith-thing that is (or was) apparently their mother (Javier Botet, with lots of CGI). Five years later -- after somehow surviving in the woods by themselves -- the girls are discovered and brought back to civilization.
They are set up in a fairly posh home by an inquisitive doctor (Daniel Kash) interested in their psychology and cared for by their late father's brother, a Bohemian-style artist named Lucas (Coster-Waldau in a double part) and his punky-pretty girl band girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).
The girls -- the tamer and more civilized Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and younger, wilder Lilly (Isabelle NÚlisse) -- prove quite a handful. Not as much of a handful, though, as the flying, swooping, totally spooky creature that's apparently their very protective mom.
I'm not partial to a lot of modern horror movies, especially the ones with a big ick-factor.
But I like most of del Toro's work, and I enjoyed this one. (Del Toro was the executive producer here, and the director/co-writer. Making his feature debut is Andy Muschietti, an imaginative chap with a strong visual sense.)
Besides, starting "Mama" off with a big financial crisis demonstrates that the movie has a good sense of what's genuinely scary about contemporary society, and who the real monsters are.
Also, having a heroine who's a rocker of sorts shows both that the movie is somewhat hip and that Jessica Chastain -- an Oscar favorite this year for her work in "Zero Dark Thirty" -- can be an amazingly versatile actress.
Playing Annabel, she attracts and repels (a little) and stirs things up. She also gives us a sense of reality, and her believable reactions to all the spooky things swirling around her pull us right into the action.
So do the wild responses of Charpentier and LÚlisse as Victoria and Lilly, two of the scariest little girls on screen since the blank-faced twin ghosts in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."
Watching "Mama," I was reminded of another classic movie horror tale about a little girl and her mother, 1944's low-budget "Curse of the Cat People" from producer Val Lewton and co-director Robert Wise.
"Mama" isn't low-budget, but, at times, it's a gem. So is Chastain.