Familiar and clichéd, “Mara” isn’t the stuff of nightmares.

The opening titles of Mara state that 40% of the world’s population suffers in some form from sleep paralysis, which seems like a generally applicable number. They soon follow it up with the idea that two thirds report having encountered a demonic entity during such events, to which begins the slippery slope of how Mara goes off the deep end of crazy. Yet, unlike most modern horror films and the goals they seek to achieve, Mara’s crazy doesn’t lie in its strengths, but its weaknesses; ones that start early, and don’t relent until its last frame.

Kate (Olga Kurylenko) is a psychologist working with the Atlanta Police Department’s homicide division. The bizarre murder of a suburban father, seemingly at the hands of his disturbed wife (Rosie Fellner), has Kate investigating what might have led a woman like this to commit such a crime and abandon her young daughter, Sophie (Mackenzie Imsand). During her research, Kate finds that the victim suffered from sleep paralysis and was likely killed by Mara, the sleep demon. This claim sees Kate institutionalized, during which time she begins to experience sleep paralysis with phenomena similar to the murder case. Meanwhile, more and more mysterious deaths occur around Atlanta.

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[L-R] Olga Kuryleno as Kate and Javier Botet as Mara in the horror film “MARA,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Here’s the thing: sleep paralysis is terrifying; a literal waking nightmare. The idea of one surrendering control of their body while being fully aware of it while watching it happen is one of the most terrifying natural experiences a human can come across. The issue in Mara is that it hardly explores the relatable side to sleep paralysis, jumping straight into the supernatural elements of it. The even more unfortunate part is that Mara’s supernatural elements aren’t particularly scary; in fact, they’re quite dull.

Mara looks, feels and acts like a cheaply made, straight-to-VOD horror film, and if it hadn’t been for the presence of former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, you could’ve probably convinced me that it was a SyFy Original Film. Kurylenko is fine in the film and is easily Mara’s strongest asset. The rest of the cast, filled with mostly television and/or independent genre actors, ham the material up to an almost comical level, making Kurylenko’s dedication to her performance feel all the more unfortunately timed.

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Olga Kuryleno as Kate in the horror film “MARA,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

The earlier scenes of sleep paralysis are surprisingly tense for the brief moments the film focuses on the paralysis itself, rather than on a demonic entity. The hope for a return to these elements diminishes as their frequency, unfortunately, became rarer as the film’s surprisingly sluggish 98-minute runtime went on. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem had these alternative scenes been remotely scary, but Mara relishes in the cheapest, most predictable jumpscares possible. This form of suspense also lessens the screen time of the always reliable Javier Botet, who is a master at concocting creepy motion-capture creatures from our deepest nightmares. Here, as the titular demonic entity, he’s relegated to quick scenes of predictable jolts and jumps. It’s a waste of such a talent.

Directed by Clive Tonge, there’s a whisper of something genius here that suggests had more time and effort been spent in creating a more subtle slow-burn experience, Mara would not sputter out so early into its runtime. There’s a repetitive nature to the film that eventually becomes so rote that one might find themselves checking their watches more than once throughout. The differences between each scene feel minimal at most, making the entire experience of learning about and gradually fearing the entity of Mara more frustrating than a horror film like this should be.

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[L-R] Javier Botet and Director Clive Tonga behind the scenes of the horror film “MARA,” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

One can’t fault Mara for being made inexpensively (some of the best horror films of the past couple of years have been made on small budgets), but one can fault it for feeling cheap. Nearly every aspect of the film feels done for the sake of a quick jolt, rather than anything of any true lasting effect. Kurylenko is fine in the film, almost too good for what the material calls for, and when you do get to see Mara in her full entirety, Botet’s motion-capture performance doesn’t disappoint. Everything else in the film, unfortunately, feels so utterly familiar and cliché that there’s hardly anything to truly recommend about the film unless you’re looking for something intentionally dull. However, unlike an intentionally bad film, this bad horror movie is no fun.

Final Score: 1 out of 5

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Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming

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