The quandary of horror movies is that the highest-quality ones tend to scare us less often. Making time for good acting, emotional nuance and a genuine sense of dread generally reduces the number of screams per minute.
“Mama,” which is directed by Andres Muschietti but “presented” by Guillermo del Toro, has great emotion but fewer scares than horror fans might like. It’s more of a dark, beautifully done fairy tale, where the monster in the woods has as much of a breaking heart as the woman clutching someone else’s child.
The story starts off with a sad man who does some very bad things before running off into the forest with his daughters. The man’s far more kindly brother then spends the next five years searching for the girls, finally finding them in a completely feral state. He takes them home to live with him and his reluctant girlfriend, only to find out they didn’t leave the forest alone.
Early on, the movie makes you question exactly who is and isn’t a monster. The girls’ father, played by the same actor as the kindly uncle, intends far more harm to his daughters than the mysterious thing in the woods. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau differentiates the roles beautifully, but it’s impossible to forget that the mad financier and the gentle artist shared the same blood.
When the girls are found, they’re scuttling creatures whose bent shapes and jerky movements seem entirely inhuman. Later, after they’ve been cleaned up and are standing upright, the youngest child can still be possessed of a wild glee that appears animalistic enough to be possibly dangerous.
Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain, is the uncle’s girlfriend and a reluctant adopted mother to the two wild girls. She’s as lost in the wildness as the audience is, but the director also uses her to make us care about the monsters. She bonds to the two feral girls, slowly infusing her confusion and near-anger with a wonderfully quiet tenderness. They aren’t really less strange than they had been, but she begins to understand them.
Even the monster gets wept for, both by Chastain’s character and the two little girls who it essentially raised for five years. Megan Charpentier, playing the eldest, is heartbreaking as she tries to keep everything safe and together.
The director does mingle all this emotion with a lingering sense of dread, imbuing even long, quiet stretches with real tension as we wait for something to go wrong. He’s even better with matter-of-fact terror, twisting something simple into the dangerously surreal.
The best includes a simple domestic scene that starts off perfectly normally, with the youngest girl playing while Chastain’s character gathers laundry. Then the shift happens, so quietly that the audience might not even notice it at first, all that safe familiarity disappears out from under the audience’s feet. It’s far more unsettling than something leaping out of the darkness.
In “Mama,” the darkness isn’t anything to be particularly afraid of. Bad things live in both the shadows and the light, and every hand is capable of both love and death. Which, in the end, might be the scariest thought of all.