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One scary 'Mama'
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies

"Mama," produced by that good-natured gourmand of the ghastly, Guillermo del Toro, sees director Andrés Muschetti tell a good old-fashioned horror story, not just in tone and tenor but also in form and filming. After the "found footage" faux-handheld camera work of jostling diversions like the "Paranormal Activity" films and their ilk, it's nice to see a horror film where camera movement and carefully-contemplated camera placement are used as delicately and exquisitely as a surgeon's knife. Released in the dead zone of January films, "Mama" is a sincere shocker — a modern horror film that's as smart as it is scary, as well-acted as it is well-constructed, as capable of coherent story logic as it is capable of egregious jump-scare moments.

We open with four simple words: Once up on a time ... When their father goes off the road, literally and figuratively, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) are abandoned to live in an old cabin in the woods. With Victoria just five and Lilly a year old, it's just the two of them ... and it also clearly isn't. Flash-forward five years, and the girls are found — almost non-verbal, feral, filthy. After a few months of rehab, their uncle Luke (Nikolaj Costner-Waldau) is ready to take them in, but his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, with Joan Jett's bangs and attitude on loan) isn't quite sure ... and kindly psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) would like to keep the girls nearby so he can keep checking in on them.

And after moving the freshly-forged foursome into a home owned by the Institute Dr. Dreyfuss works for — rent-free — things settle down, aside from the occasional bumps in the night. Which get louder, and less occasional. The girls both talk about "Mama," a protector-figure psychiatry and logic suggest they've invented in their isolation. But when we see someone — some thing — has followed Victoria and Lilly to their new home to play and visit, it doesn't bode well for Lucas and Annabel. Or anyone.

Bing: Watch a trailer for 'Mama'

In an age of illogical, inconsistent, silly ghost stories and over-shot, under-written horror films like the slapdash, tedious "Sinister" and its ilk, "Mama" stands floating head and dislocated shoulders above its supernatural cinematic peers, in no small part thanks to Muschetti's direction and decisions. Discussing what Mama is or what she wants will ruin too many of the film's pleasures, but let me just note that Mama is terrifying precisely because we can understand her motivations and madness, and while she isn't bound by many of the rules of physics, she is bound by the thoughts and feelings of her cold, dead brain and heart.

As for Chastian, she's exemplary; nothing elevates a B-movie like A-level talent, and she's committed to the cause. When Annabel is apprehensive about creating a pseudo-family for the girls by taking them in, her bandmate notes that all families are "screwed up." Annabel sighs: "But this one is screwed-up and instant." Nélisse and Charpentier also give excellent, smart performances, believable and moving. (When Lilly figures out the difference between Mama and Annabel and conveys it without a word, or Veronica quietly and firmly warns Annabel to not stroke her hair because "She gets jealous," you realize precisely how good the child actors are.)

The script, by director Muschetti and Barbara Muschetti, with credit also given to Neil Cross, gives Chastain and the other characters room to be smart and cautious, and while a few coincidences help things sail along when the ball is rolling, they aren't especially infuriating. And Mama herself — a mix of CGI, practical effects and actor Javier Botet's body, along with many voices — is a distinctive, unique creation made-to-measure for a modern ghost story, not just a recycled off-the-rack blur of CGI and darkness. "Mama" may seem indistinguishable from a crop of other recent, lesser horror films, but if you give it a chance to surprise (and startle) you, it's a superb, spooky, fearlessly fresh film that's not interested in either the easy happy ending or the lazy set-up for a sequel. Instead, "Mama" wants to, tries hard to, and truly does scare you senseless.

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James Rocchi has written reviews and articles for print and on-line publications including Total Film Magazine, The Toronto Star, IndieWire's The Playlist, Mother Jones, AMCtv.com, Cinematical.com and more. He's covered film festivals including Sundance, Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. He's been an on-air reviewer for CBS-5 San Francisco and a reviewer and commentator for CNN, G4, Tech TV and more. He lives in Los Angeles, which is both exactly and not at all like the movies suggest it is."
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