Guillermo del Toro, the Academy Award-nominated writer of Pan’s Labyrinth, presents this supernatural thriller that tells the haunting tale of two little girls who disappeared into the woods the day that their parents were killed. When the young sisters are found alive in a decrepit cabin, their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones) and his girlfriend (Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) take them in. As they try to introduce the children to a normal life, Annabel (Chastain) begins to wonder if the traumatized girls are the only guests they have welcomed into their home.
When he's not making gargantuan movies about giant robots and/or comic book hell-beasts, Guillermo del Toro as a producer has fostered a movement toward dreamy, fairy-tale horror (The Orphanage, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark), where primally Grimm scenarios reach some unusually bittersweet resolutions. Mama, del Toro's 2013 production, continues this winning storybook streak, driven by a fiercely against-type performance by Jessica Chastain and an impressive number of uneasy frights. (How many times can a little girl ferally scuttling around the edges of the frame be scary? Quite a few, actually.) Beginning with a literal Once Upon a Time, director-cowriter Andrés Muschietti's film concerns a pair of young girls left stranded in a creepy cabin in the woods after a family tragedy. When they are miraculously found intact five years later, they credit their survival to a mysterious mother figure. As their reluctant new riot girl guardian (Chastain) soon discovers, this protective entity has a murderous case of separation anxiety. Muschietti's project (devised with his sister Barbara) had its genesis as a widely YouTubed three-minute short film, and the elongation seams do occasionally show, particularly in the third act, when characters begin appearing for the express purpose of being munched. Still, even if it doesn't all hang together, Mama has no shortage of champion scary moments, expertly designed for maximum freak-out. (An early scene involving a supernatural game of tug of war hits just the right mark between nervous laughter and serious goose bump territory.) After seeing what lurks under Chastain's bed, don't be surprised if you cultivate some serious dust bunnies of your own. --Andrew Wright