Mara Review: Olga Kurylenko makes her horror debut as she battles a demon who uses sleep paralysis to trap victims.
Olga Kurylenko burst onto the acting scene as Camille in Daniel Craig’s second stint as Bond, Quantum of Solace. Since then, she has undertaken a multitude of roles in many genres, though it has taken her until now to venture into the horror genre. Mara will almost certainly not have been the first horror project sent to her, but it is the first one to bag her. Her interest was clearly peaked by the subject matter: sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a very real condition, one that affects around forty percent of the population at some point or another. It occurs when the person finds themselves in that strange state between sleep and waking. Essentially, it’s like a waking dream, but because you’re still in a dream state, your body is paralysed. The episodes are exceptionally terrifying and it’s a wonder why the market isn’t already saturated with films on the topic.
Mara follows Kurylenko’s Kate, a relatively new criminal psychologist, whom is brought in to assess the mental state of a woman accused of murdering her husband. The woman in question is adamant she is innocent and that a demonic entity, known as Mara, is to blame. Kate’s research into the case takes her to a group of patients all suffering with sleep paralysis whom all claim to have seen this same menacing being. As she delves deeper still, Kate finds herself the unwitting next victim on Mara’s list.
The plot is as generic as it sounds, Mara hits every expected horror beat that has been around pretty much since the inception of horror films. It gets a little tiresome in places, but also works in an odd way. In financial terms, by hitting all the expected tropes it makes it much more commercial, and were it to be branded as part of The Conjuring universe or the like, it would easily take a ton at the box office. Sadly, it is not part of a big horror property, and being director Clive Tonge’s feature debut, it will likely slip under the radar. This is a massive shame as, generic narrative aside, Tonge has crafted a film with respectably high production values.
The Mara sequences are deftly handled and illicit a commendable amount of chills. The one draw back to this interesting phenomenon is that the victim is completely still. A camera set-up watching a person be motionless isn’t necessarily that frightening, especially if it repeats over and over due that being the nature of how our creature attacks. Tonge tries subtle techniques to try and make each of these scenes feel different. It’s amazing how just changing the location of an episode can change the viewing experience. Also, by having Mara attack in stages, slowly building up to the kill, means that each encounter has a varied level of intensity. Mara is also helped-out immensely by having everyone’s favourite movie monster actor Javier Botet as the titular terror. You’ll have seen his work in everything from The Mummy (2017) to The Conjuring 2, so you know he can move his long-limbed body in some very unnatural ways.
There have been other films on sleep paralysis over the last few years. The highlight is documentary The Nightmare which first planted this condition on my radar. Since then we’ve had the likes of Dead Awake and Slumber which have just been quite poor; Mara definitely stands as a stronger entry. Tonge did extensive research into the phenomenon and a lot of the attacks were built from real life accounts. By weighting the condition in science and backing it up with true experiences, there is an element of uneasy reality that causes the occasional involuntary shiver.
Mara won’t go down in the genre ledgers as anything particularly wondrous, but it does demonstrate that Tonge has plenty of skills. It’s a valiant attempt to investigate a very interesting source material, though sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare remains the most chilling coverage.
Mara review, Kat Hughes, October 2018.
Mara was reviewed at the Arrow Video Frightfest Halloween 2018.