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Mama has the perfect setup for suspense

two orphaned sisters who spend five years in the woods

By Forrest Hartman
2½ stars
Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Because children are so naturally sweet and genuine, it’s terrifying to see a youngster acting otherworldly or possessed. Writer-director Andy Muschietti exploits this fact to great effect in “Mama,” the story of two orphaned sisters who spend five years in the woods fending for themselves without human supervision.

When the girls are finally discovered and given the opportunity to live with their uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), it’s a difficult transition. Both girls are years behind developmentally, and their baggage includes an unfriendly ghost who isn’t willing to let them go. As in most ghost stories, the adults are slow to realize that they are witnessing supernatural events, even though viewers are given the full scoop immediately.

Since audiences know what’s going on long before Lucas and Annabel, director Andy Muschietti has the perfect setup for suspense. Some of his eeriest sequences, however, occur when he’s simply showing the girls acting as they did while living alone. With no other humans to imitate, they learned to walk rapidly on all fours and quickly disappear into the shadows, making them appear more animal than human.

“Mama” doesn’t add anything new to the ghost story genre. In fact, the plotting may seem redundant to people who watch a lot of horror. Still, Muschietti’s work with atmosphere and the film’s rapid pacing make it an enjoyable ride.

The movie also benefits from a fine cast. Chastain is particularly good as a young woman forced to become a parent under frightening circumstances. Also, Muschietti draws great performances from Megan Chapentier and Isabelle Nelisse, the youthful actresses who play the orphaned girls.

“Mama” would have been better if it brought something new to the table, but old ideas can be fun – and scary – when presented this well.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes, the short film that inspired the feature and a filmmakers’ audio commentary.