By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 7, 2019
Released Sep. 7, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 38min
Directed by Clive Tonge
Starring Olga Kurylenko, Craig Conway, Javier Botet, Rosie Fellner
When criminal psychologist Kate Fuller (Kurylenko) is brought on to investigate an alleged murder, she’ll find herself in the path of ancient demon Mara (Botet), who strickens her victims with sleep paralysis before marking them for death.
Mara tries its best to be a supernatural chiller of the Blumhouse variety with strong Asian horror overtones, but it might succeed in delivering more unintentional laughs than legitimate scares.
Narrative: This is where Mara goes all kinds of wrong. Whether it was from a lazily written script or one that was hacked into bits of garbage after the fact, the film trudges along at a laborious pace, ticking off boxes on the ghost curse checklist until it’s time to go home. It occasionally twitches with the promise that it will be something more than simply asleep at the switch, but then, it quickly fades back to its ponderous slog. Despite being frustratingly predictable, I do need to put a point back in the till for the motivation behind the titular antagonist – it’s a fairly clever concept (at least initially – until it has something to do with bad fish. I’m not joking.) It’s telegraphed in a manner that allows the viewer to reach the conclusion before our hero does (except for the fish, which is definitely a curveball), but it’s a good idea all the same.
Acting: Mara seems like it was an absolute chore to make for everyone behind the camera, but the ones in front of it at least put forth an attempt to salvage the effort, even when they’re given hilariously clunky dialogue to work with. The film keeps trying to insert emotionally wrought material, generally with weepy monologues that are earnestly delivered, yet the tone and atmosphere don’t accomodate these moments – they’re just shoehorned in wherever. In one, Kurylenko’s character is visiting the woman who she has had committed for her husband’s murder (wrongfully) and, when the woman wants nothing to do with her, she decides this is the best time to share her tragic backstory. I understand that this is for the benefit of the audience and not the falsely accused woman, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an authentic scenario. Yet, when this dramatically charged scene ends with the woman shouting “I TOLD YOU!!! MY HUSBAND WAS KILLED BY A SLEEP DEMON!!!”, I was howling with laughter. This isn’t the only scene derailed in such a manner, and as such, I refuse to hold the cast accountable for this mess. They earned their paychecks.
I know what you mean, Olga. This hasn’t been easy for me either.
Direction: This is Clive Tonge’s feature debut, and if I were to wager a bet, his uninspired paint-by-numbers work here has something to do with the stable of 14 producers holding the reins. It’s competently made, if not totally lacking in a singular definitive flash of personal style. Mara could have been directed by an AI uploaded with every similar movie ever committed to film, yet its finished product may have been more daring.
Horror Elements: To cast famed creature actor Javier Botet as the ghoulish villain and waste him is representative of the squandered opportunities throughout. Presented with little flair, the demon Mara just isn’t scary. The lights go low and in she shuffles, wheezing and rolling her wrists, presumably as warm-up exercises for some high-impact strangling. That, or she’s silhouetted behind a sheet, as curse ghosts are prone to do. Appearance-wise, she’s a mere echo of some of Botet’s other well-known monsters, like Mama or ‘Patient Zero’ from [Rec]. It’s like Samara from The Ring was put through the taffy puller from Willy Wonka, given emphysema, and set in super slo-mo. Elsewhere, aside from a couple more notable moments, the rest is corpses with bloodshot eyes and hysterical screaming. There was what could have been a really squeamish scene, where a character lops off one of their own eyelids, but the punch is pulled – the movie plays it safe at pretty much every opportunity.
Actual line of dialogue from the movie: “I’m a scientist. I deal with facts and logic – not this.”
Sound: For the score, the spooky bits are your very standard spooky bits, which should come as no surprise at this point. However, at the moments that are intended to be emotionally heavy, the music kicks into overdrive, drenching the scene in swelling strings and an operatic choir, as if we’re watching a classical tragedy. It’s too much. Also, the demon Mara is very crunchy when she walks – another common affliction of curse ghosts.
TL;DR: Mara brought together all the components necessary to make a solid supernatural horror movie and then did nothing interesting with them, even dipping its toe in unintentional comedy territory. It had a budget, so it can’t play the ‘scrappy indie production’ card, nor was it intended to be bad, like anything from the last 5 years with the word ‘Shark’ in the title. It’s a pure misfire, but it’s still a coherent movie with glimpses of a higher quality within it. There’s way worse out there, but this is still firmly mediocre in relation.