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From left: Isabelle Nelisse, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier and Jessica Chastain in “Mama,” executive produced by Guillermo del Toro. Photo courtesy Universal Pictures
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Film Review: ‘Mama’ is a terrifying tale told tenderly

Pulsating with terror at every twist and tenderness at every turn, “Mama” emerges as a solid genre story that not only sends chills down your spine, but also haunts the depths of your soul. 

Horror films may have lost a considerable amount of respect nowadays, but that doesn’t mean they are terrible by definition. When given the appropriate treatment, even a genre such as this can experience better days than it usually does.

So, what do you get when you have a project with Guillermo del Toro serving as executive producer and Jessica Chastain leading the cast? The end result is “Mama,” a terrifying but touching scary tale that shows just how far a mother’s love for her children goes.

Five years ago, sisters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) disappeared from their suburban neighborhood, leaving behind no trace. After the kids are discovered alive and well inside a decrepit log cabin, they are placed into the care of their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who is not at all enthusiastic about taking care of the children.

It soon becomes apparent that the girls are not the only ones the couple has welcomed into their home. As Annabel tries to help Victoria and Lilly readjust to living normal lives, she begins to feel the presence of a sinister force lurking in the house. Are the girls experiencing the usual post-traumatic stress, or is a ghostlike entity in their midst? And how could they have survived on their own in the woods?

Spanish director Andres Muschietti shows no bounds when it comes to establishing the mood of the film. I liked how the blue, black and gray colors in many of the scenes worked both ways: you can feel dread during one moment, and then warmth in another. Plus, the lingering gaze of the camera heightens the tension and suspense within the narrative as you wonder what kept those girls alive and what will happen to their new parental figures.

Your heart pounds as you witness Victoria and Lilly begging Annabel not to venture into a specific area of the house, or when you watch Dr. Dreyfuss talk to the girls about “Mama.”

And yet, there’s room for a soft side, most noticeably when Annabel breathes out air onto Lilly’s hands to calm her down, as well as her nailing the windows shut for the girls’ safety. It’s not easy to achieve that sense of balance in the horror genre, but as “Mama” proves, such a feat is not impossible.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the supernatural aspect of the film contains traces of del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” given he serves as executive producer of “Mama.” Nevertheless, the design of the ghostly entity is hideous yet tragic, and the way it slithers and darts across the environment is eerily mesmerizing.

Jessica Chastain handles herself well in spite of her adopted rock musician appearance, proving that looks can be deceiving. Her Annabel humanizes the story in a way that may never have occurred had she not joined this project. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has his share of moments, but it’s obvious this “Game of Thrones” alumnus is playing second fiddle to the Oscar-nominated actress, and he doesn’t seem to mind. Both Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse are perfectly cast as the two girls; they steal a good portion of the film.

The only complaint I have regarding “Mama” is the pacing of its ending scenes. I can’t say for certain whether the unfolding of the final events should have been sped up or slowed down, but the manner in which the end proceeds isn’t quite what I would define as “smooth.” This downside doesn’t take away from the fact that “Mama” is still a good horror film; it’s just an oversight I feel could’ve been refined.

In the end, “Mama” triumphs as a competent genre keeper and is sure to delight horror fans looking for something with far more substance than what is usually available. Even if you’re not one for scary movie nights, this one rises above the slump that most fall into and is worth checking out.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements.
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Playing: General release