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Originally published January 17, 2013 at 2:16 PM | Page modified January 17, 2013 at 2:14 PM

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Both predictable and far-fetched, ‘Mama’ fails to frighten or impress

‘Mama,’ starring Jessica Chastain and produced by Guillermo del Toro, is a tepid iteration of a familiar horror formula.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 2 stars

“Mama,” with Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Jane Moffat. Directed by Andy Muschietti, from a screenplay by Neil Cross, Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements. Several theaters.

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Some questions really should not be asked, and “What’s under the bed?,” unless it refers to dust bunnies, is one of them. Nonetheless, Annabel (Jessica Chastain, slumming) asks it, in Andy Muschietti’s lukewarm horror film “Mama.” The answer is the white-eyed ghost of an inmate of an 1800s insane asylum who has a very flexible back, an uncanny ability to pass through walls and a tendency to bite people who get in her way. Aren’t you sorry you asked, Annabel?

Though “Mama” doesn’t work, it has the ghost of a good idea at its core. In its early scenes, two little girls are abandoned by their suicidal father in a remote cabin — and we see hints that some ghostly presence is taking care of them. (The kids, both under 5, are too young to know that they’re supposed to be afraid.) Fast-forward five years — and yes, it’s more than a bit of a stretch that nobody would find the tots, or their father’s car, for that long — and their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally locates them. But the girls, who seem to have been spending those years studying horror-movie movement (they scuttle like evil beetles), are now feral; accustomed to a ghost called Mama, they find people terrifying.

“Mama” was originally a short film, by Muschietti and his sister Barbara Muschietti, and you can see how it might have been powerful. Stretched out to feature length, it’s disappointingly dull. Annabel, who’s Uncle Lucas’ girlfriend, is a free spirit in a Rock Band (she says it that way, as if it had capital letters) who bristles at becoming an unexpected mother to two very weird kids. The movie’s full of Annabel looking resentful while the kids gaze intently at the walls; meanwhile, randomly terrible things happen to the uncle, and to the doctor (Daniel Kash) who’s trying to help them, and to the aunt (Jane Moffat) who wants custody of the kids, not knowing that they come complete with a resident ghost.

The movie has a few moments of eerie beauty, in a “Pan’s Labyrinth” creature-y way (Guillermo del Toro is an executive producer), but mostly things unfold predictably. “A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape,” the doctor is told by an earnest archivist, whose entire purpose in the movie is to deliver this line. Quite so, but when you’re spending more time analyzing the main character’s tattoos and haircut than being genuinely frightened, a ghost story just doesn’t work.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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