Sleep paralysis — people “wake” unable to move while a presence of some kind watches (and sometimes does more than just watch) from nearby — is an acknowledged sleep disorder that reportedly traumatizes thousands of people around the world, and like most real-world “scares” it’s also found its way into the movies. Dead Awake (2016) and Slumber (2017) both put it front and center in their horror tales, and filmmaker Rodney Ascher’s documentary The Nightmare (2015) blends interviews and recreations in an attempt to capture what people claim to have experienced. None have managed to really channel the disorder into palpable on screen terror, but that hasn’t stopped yet another film from taking a stab at it this year.
Kate (Olga Kurylenko) is a forensic psychologist called to the scene of a gruesome murder. Police believe a woman killed her husband, but the distraught and clearly disturbed woman claims it was a sleep demon known as Mara. The couple’s young daughter witnessed part of the incident, but it’s unclear if her memory is to be trusted amid the trauma. Kate digs deeper into the folk lore and finds a self-help group focused on people suffering from strikingly similar symptoms. It’s not long before Kate’s experiencing the phenomena firsthand — she wakes from sleep, frozen in place as a creepy and crackling figure emerges from the shadows — and her terror only grows from there.
Mara feels very familiar, both in and out of the sleep paralysis sub-genre. Kate’s a scientist who approaches things rationally at first, but once she herself becomes afflicted her response grows more emotional and seemingly irrational. At that point another person of science steps in as the voice of reason — “I’m a scientist.I deal in facts and logic, not this.” — but the sleep demon keeps crawling towards people and twisting their necks all the same. As that hurdle is passed, along with more dead bodies, the film finally finds an uninspired footing with more traditional horror antics.
The film’s effectiveness when it comes to scares is going to vary with viewers, with those who’ve personally experienced sleep paralysis probably responding best. It ultimately amounts to little more than bad nightmares for the rest of us, and while director Clive Tonge manages minor chills with a couple later sequences, too much of the film before then drags with generic beats and an effort to convince viewers it’s all based in reality. We get some shaky statistics in addition to a fairly bold statement that “everyone” will experience sleep paralysis in their life-time, but rather than set a dramatic stage for what follows it instead lands like a challenge. The lack of atmosphere hurts, but the dearth of effective scares — especially ones not cheapened by loud stingers or sound cues — is ultimately what leaves the film feeling underwhelming.
Mara‘s strongest element, outside of Kurylenko, is the design and presentation of its title character. The demon’s brought to vivid life by the tall and spindly Javier Botet, and while his name probably isn’t familiar his work most definitely is for horror fans. He typically plays creatures and characters straight out of nightmares with roles as the eponymous characters from Slender Man (2018) and Mama (2013), the hobo in It (2017), Set in The Mummy (2017), the Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2 (2016), and perhaps most famously, as the creepy as hell Niña Medeiros in [Rec] (2007). His work here once again turns meticulous body movement into nightmare fuel, but it’s far too little too late.
There are teases of interesting threads in Mara including the idea that this demon exists in various cultures under different guises, but little is done with the concept. The film almost scrapes by on the power of Kurylenko and Botet, but neither talent gets enough to work with resulting in a film that just might leave you feeling a little bit sleepy yourself.