Director: Clive Tonge
Writer: Jonathan Frank, Clive Tonge
Producer: Jake Shapiro, Daniel Grodnik, Mary Aloe, Myles Nestel, Craig Chapman, Scott Mann, James Edward Barker, Steven Schneider
Stars: Olga Kurylenko, Craig Conway, Javier Botet, Rosie Fellner, Lance E. Nichols, Mackenzie Imsand
Unusual deaths compel a psychologist to delve into the mystery of an ancient demon haunting people with sleep paralysis.
Like “The Man in the Shadows” (review here), “Dead Awake” (review here), “Be Afraid” (review here), and countless others before it, “Mara” supports the hypothesis that there just isn’t a truly frightening thriller to be mined out of sleep paralysis. At the very least, nobody has made one yet.
According to statistics displayed at the start of the film, 40% of the world’s population suffers from the phenomenon, with two-thirds of that number describing attacks from a demonic entity too. No doubt, experiencing such vivid encounters in reality sounds terrifying. Fictionalized as an umpteenth scene of a dark figure creeping atop a motionless person however, the concept’s inherent visual sluggishness translates into ho-hum horror of average at best quality. Exhibit A: “Mara.”
When an insomniac’s broken body puts his wife in the hot seat for homicide, Detective McCarthy summons psychologist Kate Fuller to assess the suspect’s mental state. Mother and daughter both claim a sleep demon named Mara murdered the man. McCarthy insists mom is loony tunes, compelling Kate to have her ripped away from her distraught daughter and institutionalized.
Kate of course can’t leave well enough alone. Delving deeper into this ‘Mara’ mystery, Kate finds an entire group of sleep paralysis sufferers who’ve also seen the evil entity. One of the group’s members, Dougie, conveniently offers all of the demonic details on Mara, who supposedly dates back centuries as a supernatural murderer plaguing nightmares on a global scale.
Kate soon experiences sleep paralysis for herself over three consecutive nights. Despite seeing Mara all three times, finding footprints on her floor, noticing a burst blood vessel in her eye said to be Mara’s mark of death, learning of a man so fearful that he set himself on fire, finding another person’s shriveled corpse twisted in his bed, and watching video footage of a dark figure sitting atop yet another victim who died in her sleep, Kate still isn’t completely convinced of Dougie’s crackpot claims about Mara. Kate will have to get her sleep-deprived head in the game though, if she wants to find out what makes Mara tick before anyone else, particularly her, suffers the demon’s dreamscape death touch.
“Mara” supports a second hypothesis regularly proven by indie features with more above-the-line names than actors listed in their poster art credits block. Yes, it takes a village to raise funds and to put together a production of any size. But when a movie cites eight people as producers and eight more as executive producers, there are too many cooks in the creative decision kitchen, lending a likely explanation for why “Mara” stirs a blandly flavorless soup in need of original salt.
“Typical” is the only adjective needed for describing any element in the movie. A montage of juice mixing and jogging introduces Kate, a standard single female protagonist whose empathic dedication to her work is balanced by decompressing with a glass of wine and a bath. If her tub had a level lip, the set decorator certainly would have dressed it with candles.
Actress Olga Kurylenko, likely directed to do so, portrays Kate typically. When Kate finds the second of two dead bodies she stumbles onto, Kurylenko widens her eyes and brings her hands to her mouth while slinking to the floor in disheartened shock. “Mara” adds another mile to the moment by switching to slow motion and raising the volume on operatic aah-aah-aahing over the scene. These are typical techniques for artificially inflating emotion that ”Mara” resorts to more than once.
Mara herself also sprouts from flattened fiction. Some noise exists in her scant backstory concerning how many eras and countries she has haunted. But there’s no background related to Mara that isn’t more about miscellaneous sleep paralysis encounters. Not having even an inkling of Mara’s who, what, or why dries out the demon into a husk of interchangeable horror.
If a film doesn’t tie its terror tale to an exclusive entity, how does it make a unique impression? You can’t have “A Nightmare on Elm Street” without Freddy Krueger. You can have “Mara” with Chuck, Sally, or any ordinary ghost you choose.
Craig Conway squeezes the most juice out of “Mara” as Dougie. Conway’s embodiment of an unhinged Tom Sizemore adds heat to a cast of clichéd characters. His intensity boils over into borderline campiness on occasion. Yet Conway’s tendency to exaggerate is preferable to the movie’s contentedness to stay under the speed limit on every other road.
“Routine” doesn’t automatically equate to “bad.” Neither does “forgettable.” Aside from a squirm-worthy eyelid snipping that earns a thumbs up for standing out, “Mara’s” mediocrity merely prevents it from being memorable, even among its equally unimpressive peers in the sleep paralysis subgenre.
Review Score: 50