“Mara” opens with some dubious statistics fudged to imply that about one-third of the world’s population thinks they’ve been “attacked by a demonic entity.” That, unfortunately, sets the tone for a generically conceived horror thriller distinguished only by its belief that more hysteria equals a more frightening movie.
There’s certainly a lot of yelling and screaming here, but chills diminish rather than increase as a result. However, those experiencing vitamin deficiencies over underexposure to ham acting and jump scares may find relief from the film’s Sept. 7 release to VOD, Digital HD and a few theaters.
Forensic psychologist Kate (Olga Kurylenko) is called by police to the scene of a murder —housewife Helena (Rosie Fellner) is suspected of killing her husband, found contorted in agony right next to her in bed. But she claims a “sleep demon” did it, and when little daughter Sophie (Mackenzie Imsand) is asked “Who hurt daddy?” she responds (in the requisite spooky-whisper): “Mara.”
The latter, it seems, is some kind of bad spirit with a long history of different incarnations in different countries. It’s currently the terror of a support group for sleep-paralysis sufferers led by an expert in that field, Dr. Ellis (Mitch Eakins). His patients all think they’re “next,” and indeed sport telltale sty-like marks in their eye as their presumed doom nears.
The thing is, they are dying — all found in the same strangled, silent-scream position — to the intense annoyance of perpetually fed-up chief cop McCarthy (Lance E. Nichols). He won’t stand for any of this supernatural nonsense, instead pointing a blaming finger at a particularly volatile support group member, ex-soldier Dougie (Craig Conway). But Kate starts to become a believer, particularly once she begins experiencing nightmare visions, then acquires an eye sty herself.
Sort of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” without the imagination — the bad dreams we see are very routine, straightforward “Boo!” appearances by wraith-like Mara (Javiet Botet) — the film has its protagonists trying to stay awake and out of the titular demon’s clutches while hoping to find a means of long-term survival. The “mystery” elements are so klutzy that when we discover what makes Mara choose her prey, the explanation suggests that pretty much the entire human population ought to have been killed by her already. Also inexplicable is the fact that, for a time, the heroine continues to insist Mara can’t exist even after she glimpses the entity on a surveillance tape — which it doesn’t occur to her to show to anyone else, including the police.
But expectations of plot logic can be suspended when a horror movie delivers atmosphere and scares. Alas, “Mara” is mostly in the business of amplifying cliches. The monster rasps like a ghoul in a 1980s Italian schlock horror; the actors, not to be outdone, seldom speak when they can shout.
Several performers are required to be in a state of hysteria pretty much all the time. While one suspects they were doing exactly what first-time feature director Clive Tonge asked, his judgment in matters of tone seems, well, tone-deaf. One early scene in which the incarcerated Helena is separated from visitor Sophie isn’t content to coax poignance from restraint. No, there must be tears, screaming, physical force — and a teddy bear actually torn in half.
Kurylenko is allowed to play things relatively straight, but she seems miscast; in any case, it’s distracting that so many principal actors in this Savannah, Ga.-shot U.S. production sport conspicuous overseas accents.
Though competent in its technical aspects, “Mara” doesn’t have any notable stylistic personality that might have provided a lift (or even a hint of tongue-in-cheek humor) to its solemnly silly content. There is a chuckle in the inevitable whew-it’s-over-oh-wait-it’s-not! climax. But not of the intentional kind.