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‘Mama’ Reviews: Is Jessica Chastain’s Horror Movie Frightening or Zero Dark Ghastly?

Critics were largely taken with "Mama"

Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain is shaking things up a bit by following up her critically acclaimed work in "Zero Dark Thirty" with a star turn in the horror movie "Mama."

The film, produced by "Pan's Labyrinth" director Guillermo del Toro, centers on a pair of children who are watched over from the afterlife by their mother. Turns out, "Mama" may have been murdered by their father ("Game of Throne's" Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) but is having some trouble letting go of her brood.

Chastain plays the girlfriend of the children's uncle (also Coster-Waldau), who takes them in after their trauma only to find herself in a paranormal maternal rivalry.

Reviews have been mixed to positive with the film receiving a 63 percent "fresh" rating on the  Rotten Tomatoes — a relatively strong showing given that the horror genre often fails to find favor with critics. "Mama" opens in theaters on Friday.

In TheWrap, Leah Rozen said the movie was "fitfully involving" but decried its tendency to rely on easy scares. She was less impressed with Chastain's turn, implying it was beneath her formidable talents.

"The Oscar-nominated Chastain sports a short, dark ‘do, tattoos and heavy eyeliner here. She has been far better elsewhere, though it’s not as if she has a lot to work with here other than to look frustrated or fearful," Rozen wrote.

Also read: 'Mama' Review: Guillermo del Toro's Maternal Malevolence Fitfully Captivates

Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal also felt that the film could have been more frightening, but he was impressed by Andrés Muschietti, the Argentine director making his feature debut, comparing his work to New Wave legend François Truffaut.

"'Mama' announces the arrival of a director who works unusually well with actors — the two children are truly scary — and who creates highly charged environments, effective sound designs and powerful fantasy sequences," Morgenstern wrote.

Manohla Dargis was similarly impressed by Muschietti's deft hand with his actors and ability to create an atmosphere of terror. The New York Times critic took pains to emphasize that "Mama" is not a standard horror film that relies on clichéd rehashes of things that go bump in the night.

"If you’re a movie fan, you know that horror doesn’t get much better than this, and when it comes to contemporary offerings it rarely gets more enjoyable than 'Mama,'" Dargis wrote. "Instead of delivering buckets of guts and gore, this ghost story offers a strong sense of time and place, along with the kind of niceties that don’t often figure into horror flicks, notably pictorial beauty, an atmosphere throbbing with dread and actors so good that you don’t want anyone to take an ax to them."

Newsday's Rafer Guzman was more nuanced in his appraisal, implying that Chastain was slumming it and working in "pre-fame" mode. But he argued the film benefits from sterling camera work and a riveting climax.

"'Mama' isn't entirely original — horrormeisters, enough with the moth symbolism! — but there are plenty of fresh ideas to compensate," Guzman said.

For the Boston Globe's Tom Russo, however, "Mama" represents a series of squandered opportunities.

"It’s a kooky scenario laid out with impressive creepiness at points, as Muschietti expands on a previous short film under the guidance of producer/genremeister Guillermo del Toro," Russo wrote. "The frustration, though, is how much the movie leans on made-ya-jump scares and contrived plot devices when its quieter chills and already fraught setups are so potent."

Not exactly a rave, but other recent, critically loathed films like "Texas Chainsaw 3D" would kill for notices like that.