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'Mama' a chilling tale efficiently and affectingly told

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 3:17 a.m. MDT

Lucas (NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU) and his girlfriend, Annabel (JESSICA CHASTAIN), in Lucas (NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU) and his girlfriend, Annabel (JESSICA CHASTAIN), in "Mama", a supernatural thriller presented by Guillermo del Toro that tells the haunting tale of two little girls who disappeared into the woods the day that their parents were killed. When they are rescued years later and begin a new life, they find that someone or something still wants to come tuck them in at night. Photo Credit: George Kraychyk Copyright: ? 2013 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Universal)

"MAMA" — ★★★ — Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, Daniel Kash, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Isabelle Nélisse; PG-13 (violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements); in general release

"Mama" breaks a lot of horror movie rules, right off the proverbial bat.

It gives us a long back-story opening, and brings up much more back story as the tale progresses.

It over-explains. It reveals its supernatural menace, not just in glimpses, but full on, and early on. There's never any doubt that this might be all in somebody's head.

But "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 twenty-something rock musician (Jessica Chastain) stuck with caring for them.

(L to R) Annabel (JESSICA CHASTAIN) tries to protect Lilly (ISABELLE N?ISSE) and Victoria (MEGAN CHARPENTIER) in (L to R) Annabel (JESSICA CHASTAIN) tries to protect Lilly (ISABELLE N?ISSE) and Victoria (MEGAN CHARPENTIER) in "Mama", a supernatural thriller presented by Guillermo del Toro that tells the haunting tale of two little girls who disappeared into the woods the day that their parents were killed. When they are rescued years later and begin a new life, they find that someone or something still wants to come tuck them in at night. Photo Credit: George Kraychyk Copyright: ? 2013 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Universal)

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, non-verbal, 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.

"Don't call me that," she says with a smile when Victoria (Megan Charpentier) calls her "Mom." She's not. "This isn't my job," she tells Lucas.

Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) hides behind sister Victoria (Megan Charpentier) in Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) hides behind sister Victoria (Megan Charpentier) in "Mama." (Universal)

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 Nélisse) doesn't speak, but only gurgles, grunts, eats cherries and sleeps with tree limbs — back into the human race.

Thanks to whatever kept them alive for five years in the woods, that's not going to be easy.

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 — with "Don't call me Mom," or with "Mama."

And Chastain, far from slumming in a horror film just as she's fighting for that "Zero Dark Thirty" Oscar, adds another gold star to her resume. Annabel is unhappy, ill-equipped for parenting, stand-offish. Chastain makes her sexy, immature and yet somehow sympathetic.

Film Title: Mama  (L to R) Lilly (ISABELLE N?ISSE), Lucas (NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU), Victoria (MEGAN CHARPENTIER) and Annabel (JESSICA CHASTAIN) in Film Title: Mama (L to R) Lilly (ISABELLE N?ISSE), Lucas (NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU), Victoria (MEGAN CHARPENTIER) and Annabel (JESSICA CHASTAIN) in "Mama", a supernatural thriller presented by Guillermo del Toro that tells the haunting tale of two little girls who disappeared into the woods the day that their parents were killed. When they are rescued years later and begin a new life, they find that someone or something still wants to come tuck them in at night. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures (Universal)

Horror is all about the short-circuit that the screen's technical manipulations — music, editing — cause in our brain, so this isn't high art. But "Mama" is easily the most moving, most chilling ghost story since "Insidious," an emotional tale efficiently, and affectingly told.

"Mama" is rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some distrubing images and thematic elements; running time 100 minutes.

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