Jessica Chastain looks like Joan Jett in Mama - short black hair, tattooed, a rock-and-roller who hangs up her studded belt to become surrogate mother to a pair of deeply traumatized little girls.
An effectively spooky ghost story with Guillermo del Toro's imprimatur (he's executive producer), Mama is every adoptive parent's nightmare: What if the children you bring home start eating moths and toilet paper, and won't come out from under the bed? And when they do, it's only to do something hurtful?
Directed by Andy Muschietti, a maker of commercials in Spain, and vastly expanded from a three-minute short he and his sister made five years ago (you can find it on YouTube), Mama is skillfully assembled and cast with a better caliber of actor than this tried-and-true scare fare typically attracts.
Chastain, up for an Oscar for her work as an obsessed CIA officer in Zero Dark Thirty, anchors the film as Annabel, the bassist in an all-girl band. She lives with Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a freelance illustrator. Kids are the last thing these two want.
But five years earlier, in a chilling pre-titles sequence, Lucas' brother, Jeffrey (also Coster-Waldau), went postal, killing co-workers and killing his wife. He takes his daughters and heads for the snowy woods, and to a cabin marked "Helvecia." The house, furnished in midcentury modern that's to die for, fronts onto a lake. If it weren't for the rats, the strange stains on the walls, and the creepily double-jointed, wraithlike figure with the long flowing hair and the fingers like tree branches, it'd be an idyllic place to hide.
As it turns out, this creature - first seen in shadowy, nano-second shots - is Muschietti's title character. Hers is a long and winding backstory, with stops at a Victorian-era insane asylum, but ever since Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) arrived at the cabin, she has been like a mother to the girls, feeding them cherries, and apparently feeding them a lot of dark stuff about life.
If anyone ever found the sisters and pried them away, this intensely possessive mom would certainly be upset. Which is what happens when trackers do finally find the girls, and Annabel and Lucas win custody.
Yes, there's a psychiatrist (Daniel Kash), who's convinced the sisters have invented this "imaginary guardian." And yes, there's a family member (Jane Moffat) competing for custody rights. And when Lucas injures himself - a fall down the stairs, a coma - it is Annabel who is left to fend for herself, and left to figure out how to connect with these sinister siblings.
Like another del Toro stamp-of-approval Spanish horror entry, The Orphanage, Muschietti's Mama is full of arty tropes - sepia-toned flashbacks, flickering lights, menacing murmurings. The atmosphere is positively spectral. And it's easy to see why del Toro is a champion: Like his Pan's Labyrinth, there's a fairy-tale aspect (the film even begins with the title card "Once upon a time . . . "), with children in jeopardy, a witchy monster, and edge-of-the-precipice confrontations.
In the end, if it isn't all a dream, it's maybe kind of a joke. And the filmmakers have been forced to do what they so expertly didn't do for most of the movie: linger on the digitally rendered title creature, all pliable and anorexic, with eyes that are big and sad but don't look real at all.