LOS ANGELES - A playful, elegantly made little horror film, "Mama" teasingly sustains a game of hide-and-seek as it tantalizes the audience with fleeting apparitions of the title character while maintaining interest in two deeply disturbed little orphan girls. Being sold primarily on the name of its godfather, Guillermo del Toro, this Canadian-Spanish co-production from Universal is refreshingly mindful of the less-is-more horror guidelines employed by 1940s master Val Lewton, not to mention Japanese ghost stories, but the PG-13 rating might prove too restrictive for the gory tastes of male core genre fans. Still, less bloodthirsty female teens could make up the difference at the box office, as the film provokes enough tension and gasps to keep susceptible viewers grabbing their armrests or the arms of those next to them.
In essence, "Mama" represents a throwback and a modest delight for people who like a good scare but prefer not to be terrorized or grossed out. With fine special effects and a good sense of creating a mood and pacing the jolts, Andy Muschietti shows a reassuringly confident hand for a first-time director, pulling off some fine visual coups through smart camera placement and cutting, and not taking the whole thing so seriously that it becomes overwrought.
Prologue shows a distraught father, apparently devastated after a financial setback, driving his tiny daughters up snowy mountain roads to a vacant small summer house in the woods. Just as he is about to shoot the older girl, the man is prevented from doing so by some kind of beast which is vaguely glimpsed by the youngster but not clearly; in an astute subjective visual coup, she only sees its indistinct outline because she has her glasses off.
Five years later, Victoria (Megan Carpenter) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) are discovered; miraculously, they have somehow survived by themselves, although they look like feral beasts, hopping around on all fours and the little one, especially, scarcely seeming human. Taking them in, despite highly dubious qualifications to care for such demanding cases, are the dead father's handsome artist brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his punky grrrl band girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, sporting tats and a haircut that's somewhere between Joan Jett and Liza Minnelli).
Living in a loft in clearly tenuous financial circumstances, the couple are of an age where they might be well advised to consider life pursuits that involve a measure of income. Instead, they're set up in a surpassingly luxurious suburban home by a prominent doctor, Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), for the exclusive right to study the girls and, presumably, help them fill in what they've developmentally missed through their human deprivation.
In expanding the story from a 2008 sort film, Muschietti, along with co-writers Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti, has concentrated on the personal arc of Annabel, a self-absorbed scenester who gradually discovers something resembling a maternal instinct as the girls' emotional traumas are thrust upon her. Victoria, a bright child who had learned how to speak well before her father's freak-out, isn't such a problem, but Lilly remains more animal, or even insect, than human, scurrying around like a spider in her own little universe.
And, clearly, they are not alone. Weird apparitions materialize: Large moths and web-like patterns on the walls and, in a brilliantly architectural fixed shot from a hallway, the sight of little Lilly tugging playfully with an mostly unseen presence through a door frame. This may be a pristine, immaculate looking house, but it's also haunted.
With a couple of obviously expendable supporting characters hanging around just so they can be dispatched by frisky culprit lurking in the walls, Muschietti does a pretty good job of sustaining one's interest until finally needing to let the cat (or whatever it is) out of the bag. What this very hairy thing turns out to be is scarcely any surprise at all, but it's still good for a few more startling moments before being revealed in its full and eerie glory.
The director cheapens his work's feel by overly relying upon loud and abrupt musical cues to unsettle the viewer, but the enterprise otherwise sports a classy profile thanks to Antonio Riestra's refined cinematography, Michele Conroy's expert editing and generally top production values.
Playing a more downscale character than usual, Chastain doesn't seem entirely at one with the more derelict sides of Annabel but compensates by her gradual revelations of the woman's evolving sense of responsibility.
"Mama," a Universal release, is rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements. 100 minutes.