It's not easy raising kids; apparently, it's harder when a homicidal spirit has raised them for several years in the wilderness.  This is the basis for Mama, a horror movie with a few nice touches and a lot of cliches.

Mama begins promisingly enough with something different from most horror: current events.  During the stock market crash of 2007, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Costas-Waldau) cracked up, killing his bosses and wife and taking his daughters -- three-year-old Victoria, one-year-old Lily -- on a terrifying car ride on an icy road.  They crash, wander to an abandoned cabin, and Jeffrey is going to kill his kids; before he can, though, he's killed by a floating, dark spirit -- who then gives the girls food.

Jump ahead five years, and the searchers paid for by Jeffrey's brother Lucas (also played by Costas-Waldau) have found the cabin and the girls.  Victoria (Megan Charpentier) remembers a bit of society, while Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) only remembers a few words and clings to her older sister.  Lucas and his punk-rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain so much better in Zero Dark Thirty) take in the girls.  To keep their Aunt Jean (Kate Moffat) from taking the girls, psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) arranges for a house where the family can live, and where he can interview and study the kids.

But the girls didn't come back alone.  Victoria and Lily both mention "Mama" as keeping them safe in the woods and at their new home.  Dreyfuss first thinks "Mama" is a part of Victoria's psyche, but he soon gets investigates a story of a 19th-century mental patient Victoria shouldn't know about but does.  Strange things start happening around the new house, and when Lucas is injured Annabelle becomes the surrogate mother.  And then the killing starts...

Mama works best early on, and the little kids hide and scutter about like animals as they readjust to human lives.  There are nice glimpses of something unusual going on, as the strangeness seems to happen out of the corner of the filmgoer's eye.  Unfortunately, too soon the movie becomes a series of loud noises and sudden camera close-ups, plus a fairly routine cgi critter.  The movie doesn't seem to have any consistency to its own rules (the monster kills people, or injures them, or puts them to sleep, almost at random) and the terrific feral kids are soon reduced to shrieking.  Mama starts strong, but it could have used more of its woodland element and subtle side and less of the rampaging monster.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

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