Creepy and strangely compelling, “Mama” isn’t the junky horror flick you might expect.

Yes, its January release makes it suspect, along with the unknown qualities of its first-time director. But for those enjoy a solid ghost yarn, “Mama” will provide some “Boo!” moments.

The setup is interesting in itself. A desperate, depressed father who has gone on a work-related killing spree takes his little girls with him and drives on a snowy highway toward an unknown destination. He loses control of the car on the slick road and crashes down a hillside.

He and the girls, 1 and 3 years old, survive. He walks through the woods with his children until he sees an apparently uninhabited cabin. Once inside, he draws a gun after deciding to end all three of their lives. But a mysterious presence stops him and the little girls are left on their own except for this strange sort of creature.

The tale picks up again five years later when Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) have been found. They speak very little and do not trust their rescuers. Much of the time, they clamber around like spiders on all fours instead of walking. A psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), studies the children until they finally are given to their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), an artist. Lucas’ girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) performs in a band. She has no interest in having children, but does take on the task of helping Lucas raise the pair.

Although Lilly speaks often of “mama,” Victoria begins to adapt fairly well to her new life. We don’t see Mama at first. We only see shadows of her and the results of her playtime with Lilly. Annabel suspects something odd is going on, but she doesn’t have much time to investigate after Lucas is critically injured in a weird accident. The doctor, too, knows there is something more to the “mama” story than the girls’ imaginations.

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Chastain has become recognized as an A-list actress in two short years. She’s currently on a neighboring screen in “Zero Dark Thirty” as a tough-as- nails agent who is obsessed with bringing down Osama bin Laden. Here, she plays a character who changes because of her circumstances — circumstances she doesn’t welcome. Chastain makes Annabel a well-rounded, believable person with whom audiences empathize.

Run to “Mama” for a scary, and emotion-laden, visit.