Sleep, nightmares and sleep paralysis have always been subjects frequently explored in horror films. The state we exist in when we are asleep; the bridge between conscious and unconscious, and completely powerless to where our mind goes, is a powerful image for a horror film. And of course our nightmares and subconscious are always fertile ground for exploring and awakening our deepest fears, but the reason it is so frequently explored is that many horror films deal in the currency of ‘this could happen to you’ (no matter how unrealistic) and well, we all need to sleep. This is shown in the opening shots of Mara, when words on the screen tell us that 40% of people suffer from sleep paralysis and two-thirds of sufferers have described being attacked by a “demon entity”. These fabricated statistics immediately set the film within its own reality, yet don’t sound too far from what could be real experiences.
The first character we meet, Sophie (Mackenzie Imsand), is fast asleep when we’re introduced; with her heavy breathing filling the quiet soundscape before she is woken by the loud sounds of a struggle from her parents room. Her father is found dead and her mother is arrested, but maintains it wasn’t her that did it but the sleep demon Mara. This is when criminal psychologist Kate (Olga Kurylenko), who is also asleep when we first meet her, is called. As these films usually go, Kate is sceptical at first but as more people start dying in the same manner, she begins to investigate explanations of these crimes that are rejected and ridiculed by the rest of the police detectives. She joins a support group for people suffering from sleep paralysis, who we soon find out—through some hammy overacting and weak dialogue— have all been marked by Mara. A boisterous and crazed Dougie (Craig Conway, in the film’s only memorable performance) explains that this mark means they are all going to die soon. The film is laced with clichés but lacks strong enough acting or dialogue to pull the cliches off with conviction.
The pace then builds slightly as Kate races to find answers to who Mara is and how to stop her. This is where the main problem with the film lies, it seems to announce itself with a central mystery: who is Mara and why is she targeting these people? However, the explanation is weak, disappointing and nothing the audience wouldn’t already have thought.
There are numerous dramatic, character-driven and supposed heartfelt scenes, some accompanied by a cliche piano tune, that seem like a desperate bid to push the narrative along to reveal these plot points and mysteries that don’t feel at all revelatory.
The film does do well to capture what makes sleep paralysis so frightening and life-changing to the people that live with it but, surprisingly for a horror film, it’s not at its most frightening and convincing during the sleep paralysis scenes. These scenes unfold as Kate starts getting visits from Mara and they start to feel slightly unimaginative and repetitive. Creature actor Javier Botet’s physicality and movement as Mara is undoubtedly terrifying, and the scenes do well to place us right with Kate, frozen and helpless, as Kurylenko does some convincing eye acting and heavy breathing. But unfortunately, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done a hundred times before; as we are abruptly woken with a loud gasp from Kate and she becomes more unstable and desperate. Mara does use this sleep paralysis demon to explore guilt and trauma, its effect on the psyche of the sufferers and the response of the people around them. These ideas, though nothing groundbreaking or unpredictable, are definitely interesting, as the film seems to suggest there might be no escape from guilt and trauma.
But again, the writing and acting isn’t strong enough to explore these ideas in any meaningful way. Mara is an interesting addition to the sleep paralysis horror canon that raises questions that it unfortunately can’t seem to answer. It’s also not the type of horror film that stays with you long after viewing, due to monochrome characters and a weak and anti-climactic sleep demon explanation.
Mara is available to stream on Amazon Prime now
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine Sinclair @madeleinia
Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.