2013, PG-13, 100 min. Directed by Andrés Muschietti. Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash.

REVIEWED By Louis Black, Fri., Jan. 18, 2013

Haunting and extremely atmospheric, Mama is a horror film imbued with an unsettling and affecting power.

Having killed his wife, a father grabs his two small daughters and flees to a small, abandoned house deep in the woods. He soon disappears, but his brother Lucas (Coster-Waldau) continues to search for the girls. Five years later, a search team finds Lilly (Nélisse) and Victoria (Charpentier) living alone in the rotting house. Thrilled to finally get his nieces back, he plans on raising them with his girlfriend, rock & roller Annabel (Chastain). They are aided by a psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Kash). In their newfound roles as parents, they face the many problems implicit in raising two small children – especially ones who have been on their own for five years.

Dr. Dreyfuss seems unusually interested in the girls. How and whether they survived alone seems to be the troubling, main question. After Lucas suffers an accident, much of the responsibility for raising the girls falls on Annabel. As a hardcore punk rocker, she is not terribly interested in becoming a mother, or even equipped with the appropriate skill sets. But she begins to grow into her role and learns to love and cherish the children.

As in the best horror films, it is what is suggested that has the most power. Mama’s creepiness is achieved through cinematography, score, and editing, rather than hideous monsters grotesquely and luridly shown.

While the cast is excellent, the girls give especially powerful and evocative performances. Chastain again reminds us that she is an actress who can effortlessly and powerfully play any role she’s given. Playing a punk rocker who evolves into a loving parental surrogate needs an unexpectedly broad range of skills and an ability to handle many situations.

In 2008, Andrés Muschietti directed a short film called “Mamá,” which he wrote with his wife Barbara, who also produced it. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro saw “Mamá” along with the hundreds of shorts a year he admittedly watches. But this one stood out, and he became determined to help get it made into a feature. Del Toro serves as the new film’s executive producer; Barbara Muschietti is the feature’s co-producer and co-writer. This husband-and-wife team are not just new and valuable assets to the horror genre, but to film in general as well.

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Mama, Andrés Muschietti, Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash

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