Jessica Chastain graces local screens for the second time this month, but on this occasion, the redheaded Oscar nominee is scarcely recognizable. Decked out in a jet-black wig and sporting a tattoo, she plays Annabel, a punk-band guitarist, in first-time director Andreas Muschietti’s new horror film Mama.

Taking its original inspiration from a three-minute short, this Canada-Spain co-production was filmed at Toronto Pinewood Studios and on location in Barcelona and Quebec City. It’s been doing fairly well at the international box office since its original release last month.

The film opens on the aftermath of a murder. A man named Jeffrey has just killed two of his business partners and his estranged wife during the 2008 financial meltdown. He is now leaving the scene with his two young daughters, three-year-old Victoria and her infant sibling Lily. Speeding too fast on a snowy Midwest highway, his car overturns and plunges over a ravine. Unhurt, the shaken trio takes refuge in an abandoned summerhouse.

There, Jeffrey prepares to end his life, as well as those of his two young daughters. Just as he aims his gun at the head of an unsuspecting Victoria as she gazes out the window, an unseen figure intervenes from the shadows, snapping his neck instantly. He’s met his desired fate, but the children are spared. It all takes place quickly, noiselessly.

The girls warm themselves by the fire that their father has built, uncomprehending. The unseen presence tosses a cherry out of the darkness to them for sustenance.

The narrative moves forward five years and trackers that Jeffrey’s brother Lucas has hired find the abandoned children, alive and unharmed. Someone or something has protected them all this time.

But they scarcely resemble the children they were. With no human presence or instruction, the toddlers have become feral, skittering about on all fours and sustaining themselves on moths, insects and the mysterious cherries.

Lucas, with the grudging acceptance of his girlfriend Annabel, fights their great-aunt Jean for custody of the girls. His case is clouded, however, by the bohemian lifestyle the couple lead, prejudicing their perceived ability to raise the sisters.

A prominent child psychologist intervenes to help the couple in their bid. In return for the exclusive right to study the children’s development, he sets up Lucas and Annabel rent-free in a luxurious townhouse owned by his research institute, where the girls settle in with them.

It soon becomes apparent that the mysterious force which has helped the children survive their formative years has accompanied them to their new home. They call her “Mama” and though the figure is never really seen until the film’s end, its presence is clearly felt.

Moreover, it soon becomes apparent that Mama’s maternal instincts are clashing acutely with the presence of Annabel, as she begins to warm to her new charges.

Mama is a cleverly designed, mostly understated ghost story, without a lot of the gore and mayhem that contemporary examples of its genre seem to thrive on. It builds its suspense satisfactorily and holds its audience well, although it often telegraphs its punches with an annoyingly ominous score and obvious dramatic giveaways like lights mysteriously flickering on and off.

Mama is rated PG-13 and is showing at the Qwanlin Cinema Centre at 6:45 p.m. and 9 p.m.