Mama (2013)

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Daniel Kash, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Jane Moffat

Directed by: Andrés Muschietti

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Lucas and Jessica Chastain as Annabel in Mama

Just in time for Mothers' Day (here in the UK anyway) comes Mama, the latest oddly beautiful ghost story from the House of Guillermo del Toro.

Three-year-old Victoria and one-year-old Lilly find themselves abandoned in the depths of the woods when their father, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones), buckles under work stress and kills his wife, abducts them, then runs his car off the road in the middle of a snowstorm. Isolated and alone, they are left to be raised not by wolves, but by a dark, quasi-malevolent, quasi-maternal figure they call Mama.

When their uncle Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) finally finds them five years later, having exhausted his finances paying trackers to scour the area, he is overjoyed. Less ecstatic, however, is his rock chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who we first see perched on the edge of a toilet, thanking God that she's dodged the pregnancy bullet.

Feral and atavistic (particularly Lilly) the girls are at first confined to a hospital, until their canny doctor (Daniel Kash), who knows a breakthrough scientific study when he sees it, deems them well enough to live a ‘normal' life with Lucas and Annabel, in a house paid for by the hospital.

But something – or someone – has come with the girls from the forest. And she doesn't like to share…

Isabelle Nélisse as Lilly and Megan Charpentier as Victoria in Mama

Needless to say, it isn't long before poor, long-suffering, sweary Annabel (who'd likely freak out to find herself in sole charge of two perfectly normal kids, let alone a dysfunctional pair of starey-eyed, half-wild wolfcubs who crawl on all fours and talk to the walls) finds herself alone with her boyfriend's creepy nieces and their spectral companion. Because she's a girl, and, in even our so called equal society (cough), them's the breaks.

The trailer for Mama suggests a bog standard, scary long-haired lady haunting in the much-mimicked style of The Ring or The Grudge. Yet the name of Guillermo del Toro amongst the producers' credits generally guarantees a level of quality in even the most seemingly run of the mill horror film (I much preferred Don't Be Afraid of the Dark to Insidious, didn't you?). Sure, there are some overused tropes in here (the clunky dream reveals, the ghost attack illuminated only by the strobe flash of a camera, the appeasing of the vengeful spirit that doesn't quite go to plan) but they're put to excellent effect, and by the end of the film I found myself quite caught up in its moving Poltergeist/Turn of the Screw battle for the souls of the innocent.

Throw in a strong turn from Jessica Chastain (showing, as did Sinister, why it pays to hire someone who can actually act to star in a horror film) and remarkably good performances from Megan Charpentier (already a veteran pre-teen scream queen) and Isabelle Nélisse as the two girls, and all in all you have a fairly superior ghost movie.

If you like your horror films slow-burning, elegiac, filled with unsettling details disappearing out of shot; to quietly creep you out rather than grip you by the throat and throw gore in your face, then this is definitely the film for you. Prepare to jump (I did), prepare to cry (I didn't quite, but it is pretty moving), prepare to glance nervously over your shoulder when small children of your acquaintance look up above you at something you can't see (I will). Prepare to welcome Mama...

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