A new movie entitled "Mama," starring Jessica Chastain, demonstrates how a relatively simple and derivative horror film, if executed well enough, can give you a few goose bumps of fear.
The movie is about a punky but nice bohemian couple, played by Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, taking care of their two young nieces. These girls who were found in a cabin in the woods five years after being kidnapped and abandoned by their crazy, violent father.
The two emerge from their ordeal as wild, feral children, but that's not what's scary. It's the fact that they found a spiritual "guardian" they call "Mama." Early on, there’s a terrific shot just outside the girls' bedroom: we're peering through the doorway, watching them play with something very tall, though we can't see what.
At its best, "Mama" is an elegant, shuddery tease, like a J-horror movie staged by the young Steven Spielberg. Yet the film lifts almost every one of its ideas from earlier films. The rotting black passageways that spread like mold over the walls; the crouched figures that skitter and pounce like the infamous "spider" outtake from the original "Exorcist." The way that Mama herself evokes both the monster from the "Alien" films and also the crumpled-puppet gothic mischievousness of Tim Burton.
Nothing in the film is quite original, yet it is a rip-off staged with frightening verve. It helps to have an actress as good as Jessica Chastain, who with her severe black-bang haircut suggests Liv Ullmann playing Joan Jett.
The reason Chastain's performance matters is that even though "Mama" is just a megaplex horror bash that keeps assaulting you with shrieky blasts on the soundtrack, its real subject is motherly love.
The film links Chastain’s protective instincts with the very monster she's trying to protect the children from. In doing so, "Mama" finally brings off something that's a little bit original: it invites you to care about what's scaring you.