Mama: Shlock Horror, Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Starring Oscar Nominee Jessica Chastain

At this crucial phase of her career, Jessica Chastain should be more careful in choosing her features than appearing in such disappointing horror flicks as Mama.

What would motivate a distinguished artist such as Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) to produce such a weak, one-weekend picture?

Bound to be quickly forgotten after the opening weekend, “Mama” should not damage the career prospects of the talented Chastain in the long run, but this is Oscar season, and I hope that few Academy voters would see and/or be influenced by this awful movie.

Over the last couple of years, Chastain has quickly put together a rather stunning career, which has already included two Oscar nominations (“The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty”)—but this routine little horror film doesn’t expand her range so much as contract it and should be deleted from her resume ASAP.

“Mama” first offers up a convoluted backstory involving a family in free-fall after the economic collapse of five years ago. The long opening sequence turns out to be irrelevant to anything that comes after, serving only to place two small girls (Megan Carpenter and Isabelle Nelisse) in solitude in a cabin deep in the woods. They’re “nurtured” in the wild for five years by a not-so-scary CGI ghost called Mama—until they are discovered, long having outgrown cute for creepy, and are brought back to civilization.

This movie could’ve had a lot of fun with the girls’ reemergence from beastliness and reassimilation into society—a horror version of Francois Truffaut’s “Wild Child” (1970)—but first-time director Andy Muschietti doesn’t have much time for fun. His agenda’s only to squeeze screams out of his viewers, yet this movie winds up being decidedly scream-free. This is principally because it’s difficult to make such an obviously fake ghost any kind of real threat to anybody.

Who’ll be the girls’ new parents? Their arty uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his reluctant girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), a character that gradually moves to the story’s center to become the anti-Mama. The girls’ allegiance to Mama at last shows signs of shifting to Annabel, whose maternal instincts don’t kick in (although audiences will know how they surely will) until the eleventh hour.

Seeing Chastain tattooed, sporting a Joan Jett look, and playing bass in a punk band is at first refreshing, but it’s a bitchy, underwritten part. It somehow makes the remarkable Chastain seem for the first time unremarkable, generic even. A hundred young actresses could’ve done the same job here.

The couple agrees to move with the girls into a big “case study” house in the suburbs, where a doctor (Daniel Kash) can monitor every step of the girls’ rehabilitation. His secret interest, however, lies in the paranormal: he’s the first to believe that Mama isn’t just an imaginary presence in the girls’ lives, and of course he’ll pay dearly for sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.

After Mama puts the uncle into a coma, a stressed-out Annabel confides in the doctor that the girls are “talking to the walls.”

“What do they say?” he asks, pretending not to know. “Mama,” she intones. Most of the dialogue in “Mama” is just as weak and silly as this exchange. The screenplay, by the director, Neil Cross, and Barbara Muschietti, never finds its footing—and notably shares a major plot point with last year’s “Woman in Black” (Mama won’t be at peace until she gets her lost baby back).

The film does have a few moments of visual flair, including an arresting dream sequence, an operatic finale (the only point at which executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s hand becomes evident), and a giant pile of cherry pits.

But this is also the kind of movie that uses a pile of kids’ drawings combined with spooky music as its “prepare yourself” opening credits.  In short, Mama has few new elements to add to the old, venerable tradition of creepy children-ghost mommy tradition.