"Mama" is the horror movie Tim Burton would direct if he could, a smartly atmospheric chiller that gets its scares honestly and without much gore.
The movie begins with a very human-scaled horror: Jeff (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, from "Game of Thrones") kills his co-workers and his ex-wife, then kidnaps his two young daughters to the woods but before he can kill them, something supernatural gets Jeff first. Five years later, Jeff's twin brother, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau), finds the cabin, where 8-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and 6-year-old Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) have lived in a feral state.
Lucas brings them home to be raised by him and his rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who discovers the girls talking to an otherworldly presence they call "Mama" that leads to a century-old murder mystery.
Director Andy Muschietti (who developed this story from his own 2008 short film) develops his frights organically, tapping into our childhood fears of dark spaces and abandonment, while also applying a fine Gothic touch to the effects.
Chastain, sporting a black Louise Brooks bob, gives a strong performance as Annabel, a rock performer whose reluctance to be a parent morphs gradually toward maternal ferocity.
Opens Friday, Jan. 18, at theaters everywhere; rated R for strong violence and language; 113 minutes.