Sleeping and dreams are fertile ground for horror films. Look no further than Wes Craven’s horror masterpiece, A Nightmare on Elm Street for proof. Yet to date, no horror movie has come close to replicating the terror Freddy Krueger inspired. However, recent supernatural thriller, Mara, has an almost perfect hook for a horror movie. Sleep paralysis, a very real sleep disorder, leaves its sufferer paralyzed in the moments before sleep or while awakening. But can Mara exploit this condition to create unforgettable terror for audiences?
Criminal psychologist Dr. Kate Fuller is assigned to assess a woman, Helena, suspected of murdering her husband. Found dead in his bed, police detectives believe Helena strangled her husband while he slept. The only witness is their eight-year-old daughter, Sophie. Though the case seems straightforward, Helena claims a sleep demon, Mara, killed her husband. Soon Dr. Fuller experiences nightmarish visions of the same demon. Now in the moments before she drifts to sleep, as she is gripped with paralysis, Mara stalks Dr. Fuller.
Mara Offers a Few Good Scares and Not Much Else
First-time director Clive Tonge shows flashes of promise with Mara. While this supernatural thriller doesn’t sustain its tension, Tonge more than demonstrates an ability to generate a few good scares. Over its 90-plus minute runtime, there’s more than a few effective jumps and creeps. Like some of the best horror movies, Tonge effectively uses corners and the background to suck in its audience. In a couple of stand-out scenes, you can make out hints of shapes just before Tonge unveils them. The handful of scares scattered throughout the movie are likely enough to keep you watching.
…there’s a noticeable lack of atmosphere and, at no point, does any scene have you covering your eyes in dread.
Where Mara falls shorts is its inability to fully exploit its own concept. In short, sleep paralysis should present an absolutely horrifying scenario for a horror movie. The inability to move, but fully aware, as something stalks you should be nerve-wracking. On some level, Mara may satisfy horror fans with a few well-staged jump scares. Yet there’s a noticeable lack of atmosphere and, at no point, does any scene have you covering your eyes in dread. Even the bathtub scene, prominently featured in the promotional materials, is unlikely to resonate a few hours after watching the movie.
Poor Pacing and A Weak Screenplay Undermine A Promising Premise
Perhaps Mara’s biggest limitation is its sluggish pacing. In the absence of atmosphere, Tonge limits his movie to sporadic jumps that are too few and far between to produce a truly memorable horror movie. At just over 90 minutes, Mara feels much longer than its actual runtime. It misses ‘slow-burn’ by a long-shot, almost bordering on tedious at times.
At just over 90 minutes, Mara feels much longer than its actual runtime.
Much of the blame lies with the screenplay. Tonge shares screenwriting credits with Jonathan Frank. In spite of its interesting premise and opportunity for rich mythology, Tonge and Frank create a pretty shallow experience. On the one hand, there’s too much expository dialogue to keep its demonic entity ambiguous like Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Still Dr. Fuller’s investigation into ‘Mara’ never engages or reaches the heights of a movie like The Ring. When Tonge isn’t setting up and delivering scares, things feels dull. Clunky dialogue and uncompelling characters don’t help. Olga Kurylenko is more than up to the task, but she has little with which to work.
Mara May Need to Paralyze To Keep You Watching
Aside from a few decent scares, Mara doesn’t deliver enough on its strong premise to warrant an unconditional recommendation. With its decent production values and good performances, you’ll find enough to make for a passable 90 minutes or so. However, nothing about the movie is likely to stand out. Despite its unique premise, Mara fails to paralayze its audience with fear.