A crime thriller and supernatural horror about the unnerving experiences of people with sleep paralysis. Plenty in its favor, but nowhere near enough.
Sleep can be a pain at the best of times; not just now during this pandemic, when time and emotions are all messed up. Of course, sleep is even more of a tricky beast if you’re in a horror film. You’ll be taken over by aliens if you fall asleep, according to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and you’ll be Freddy’s prey according to Nightmare on Elm Street. Now here’s Mara, the first feature film from Clive Tonge, which brings the old “night hag” demon of sleep paralysis into a modern setting.
Mara is a supernatural horror film that follows a young forensic investigator, Kate (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace), as she tries to figure out if she was right in supporting the detainment of a young mother for the murder of her husband. Apparently he had been struggling with distressing sleep disorders, and his widow claims “Mara” killed him, not her. Kate – of course – looks into this despite the lead detective’s disapproval, discovers other sufferers of sleep paralysis who claim to have encountered Mara, and lots of panicking ensues when Kate starts to see the demon herself.
The combination of crime and horror can work really well, though naturally there is the standard conflict of what people say is happening to them vs. the evidence that law enforcement will accept. Bring in support groups and scientists and we have plenty of conflict to move the plot along. And the plot is pretty good, for the most part making sense within its own logic. The fear shared by everyone who has experienced the phenomena is clear too: from everything they describe about being unable to move or wake, the sense that there is something heavy or a creature on their chest, and of course, the fear that they are going mad when no-one believes them. I can see it on their faces too: the acting is sound throughout.
Well, I say “sound”; for the most part, these aren’t demanding roles. Kurylenko is wide-eyed and either sympathetic or panicky for most of the film, escalating to hysterical near the end. Two stronger roles are supporting ones: Craig Conway (Dog Soldiers), who plays Dougie, the seemingly paranoid member of the support group who has researched Mara obsessively; and Javier Botet, who plays Mara herself. Botet has played similar spooky characters in other films, such as [REC] and Mama, and here delivers something which both creeps forwards relentlessly á la Sadako from Ring and slips from the shadows, Insidious-style: very effective!
But, but, but… the script struggles to fill its 98 minutes, adding more scenes than necessary of individuals wrestling with sleep while the dreaded Mara inches towards them: they get tiresome pretty quickly, and there isn’t much variation. The main character, Kate, serves her purpose well but is annoying: twice she had reason to jump that made me just laugh, and she spends most of the time gasping, panicking, or whining. Add in a tedious false ending or two, and what felt like an interesting film at first becomes sadly forgettable.
Except for one thing… Mara may have landed somewhere between annoying and average, but it does feature the most horrible instance of self-inflicted pain I’ve seen in a contemporary film. Be warned.
Right, on that note, I’m going to bed.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.