Guillermo del Toro’s “Mama” delivers with round characters

Alex Williams

When a horror film comes out in January, its quality is often a lot scarier than its content. With moviegoers distracted by the flood of Oscar nominees, January releases often come and go with little said or thought about them. And while the Guillermo del Toro-produced “Mama” isn’t the most memorable spine-chiller ever made, it’s still much better than its release date implies .

With del Toro producing, it’s almost a given that “Mama” will feature children in some sort of horrifying circumstance, but the film puts its young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) in peril almost immediately. Their father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) drags them into the woods after a bad day at work, and the girls are stranded. Five years later, their uncle (also played by Coster-Waldau) finally tracks them down and takes them in, much to the chagrin of his punk rock girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). However, neither of them counted on the girls bringing back something supernatural, a shadowy guardian they both call “Mama.”

Fresh off last week’s Golden Globe win, Jessica Chastain goes edgy for “Mama.” Annabel is a punk rock guitarist with short, spiky black hair and tattoos aplenty, and all those sharp edges could be overwhelming if Chastain wasn’t such a graceful, affable performer. As her character transitions from reluctant caretaker to loving guardian, Chastain manages to change what’s essentially a pro-conformist missive into a genuinely touching and compelling arc.

Charpentier and Nélisse play a profoundly damaged pair of sisters, and they both give performances that veer between terrifying and sympathetic. Often child performances can be distracting, and while Charpentier doesn’t always hit the notes “Mama” asks of her, Nélisse brings a guarded intensity and surprising tenderness to her role.

“Mama” is based on a short film from director Andrés Muschietti, and he packs his feature debut with a good variety of scares, most of them effective. Muschietti stages several simple but chilling moments, and his biggest scares are based more in the psychology of his characters than in something lunging at the screen. Even when his final moments ease up on the scares a bit, Muschietti makes up for it with an unexpectedly ballsy and heart-tugging finale.

Unfortunately, some of the steps “Mama” takes to get to that climax are less inspired than others. Characters in horror films are notoriously stupid, but “Mama’s” take the cake as three different characters make the exact same uninformed dumb decision, always without telling anyone where they’re going. Daniel Kash plays the girls’ psychiatrist, and he might as well be called Dr. Exposition, uncovering the dark corners of “Mama’s” narrative while Annabel shoulders most of the film’s scarier material.

When all is said and done, “Mama” is by no means a horror classic. It has the same disposable quality as most of the films that del Toro takes a producer’s credit on. However,the tale of two sisters dealing with their return to civilization and the woman forced to raise them is emotionally stirring, compellingly told and often just scary enough, and that’s much more than many of this month’s releases can claim.

Printed on Friday, January 18, 2013 as: Guillermo del Toro presents intense characters