As someone who suffers from the occasional bout of sleep paralysis, I can testify as to its terrifying aspects. You are in a state somewhere between sleeping and awake, experiencing often horrific nightmares while unable to move a muscle. The effects generally last for only a few seconds or minutes, but it’s scary as hell. It’s certainly scarier than anything in Mara, the new horror film inspired by the condition.
The title refers to a demonic figure that appears in the pic when people are in a state of sleep paralysis. The name is first uttered by Sophie (Mackenzie Imsand), a little girl who witnessed the creature murder her father while he was asleep, leaving his body in a brutally twisted position. Unfortunately, since the hard-boiled detective (Lance E. Nichols) on the scene doesn’t believe in such fantastical tales, the suspicion falls heavily on the victim’s wife (Rosie Fellner).
Kate (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace), the police psychologist assigned to the case, finds the little girl’s tale strangely credible. Following up on clues left at the crime scene, Kate begins looking into the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Attending a meeting of a support group for people who suffer from the condition, she encounters Dougie (Craig Conway, delivering an entertainingly gonzo turn), who frenziedly warns the others about Mara. He tells them that the demon makes herself known before making a fatal return appearance and pulls down his eyelid to show the blood spot on the white of his eye that he claims to be her mark. Not long afterward, another member of the group commits suicide by setting himself on fire.
Kate, who like so many female police investigators seems to do her best thinking while jogging, soon finds herself plagued by horrifying episodes of sleep paralysis. And when she discovers a spot of blood on her eye, it becomes clear that we’re headed for a showdown.
It’s a reasonable premise for a horror film, but the execution is remarkably lackluster. The pacing is sluggish to such a point that viewers may quickly fear that they too will fall asleep and meet Mara themselves. Director Clive Tonge has thoughtfully provided a way to keep us awake by ratcheting up the volume at key moments. Thus, the scariest things in the movie aren’t the appearances by Mara but rather the deafening noises of a blender starting, blinds being raised and cellphones and alarms going off. It’s like watching television when the sound suddenly starts blaring during commercials. The film does look good, however, thanks to the Savannah, Georgia, locations that provide a suitably creepy atmosphere.
Kurylenko does what she can with her schematic role, but she’s unable to overcome the deficiencies of Jonathan Frank’s cliché-ridden script. As for Mara, she’s portrayed by Javier Botet, who has the genetic disorder Marfan syndrome. The Spanish actor has used his tall, spindly physique to portray demonic figures in many movies including Slender Man, The Conjuring 2 and Crimson Peak, and the undeniably creepy effect is beginning to wear thin from repetition. His wraith-like creature here feels far too familiar, not from waking nightmares but rather too many horror films.
Production company: Mara the Film, LLC
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Craig Conway, Javier Botet, Rosie Fellner, Mackenzie Imsand, Ted Johnson
Director: Clive Tonge
Screenwriter: Jonathan Frank
Producers: Mary Aloe, James Edward Barker, Craig Chapman, Daniel Grodnik, Scott Mann, Myles Nestel, Steven Schneider
Executive producers: Gordon Bijelonic, Graham Bradstreet, Michael Clofine, Alice Neuhauser, Wendy Rhoads
Director of photography: Emil Topuzov
Production designer: Nava
Editors: Jessica Kehrhahn, Simon Reglar
Composer: James Edward Barker
Costume designer: Roger J. Forker
Casting: Chip Lane
Rated R, 98 minutes