PG-13 (violence and terror, disturbing images, thematic elements ); 100 min.
Mama is a reminder that the best chills don't involve chainsaws, blood and guts. Horror is a product of empathy -- in this case, fearing for the safety of small children and the reluctant 20-something 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, nonverbal, skittering around on all fours like rats. Their artist Uncle Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) is ready to take them in. His bass-playing girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), is not.
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 -- Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) doesn't speak, but only gurgles, grunts, eats cherries and sleeps with tree limbs -- back into the human race.
Producer Guillermo del Toro ( Pan's Labyrinth) must have had a hand in the production values here, which are state of the art. But what makes Mama work are the performances co-writer/director Andres Muschietti got from the little girls, who are open-faced marvels, conflicted about where their loyalties lie.
Mama is easily the most moving, most chilling ghost story since Insidious, an emotional tale efficiently and affectingly told.
-- Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service