Sleep-paralysis and Olga Kurylenko work better than a strong tranquilliser. Mara – movie review

Movies about night terrors and sleep-paralysis are one of the most common in horror, with titles pouring down from the 60s. Heck, if you search on Google “Night Terror movies”, you’ll see that at least 5-6 flicks with the same title came out in the last 20 to 25 years.

Anyway, regardless of how much a concept has been used up, you can make a good movie out of it. For instance, you could give it a unique visual style; you could have an unforgettable twist in the story; you could make it more gruesome and violent as opposed to demonic and reliant on jump-scares. The possibilities are basically endless.

Thus, I went into Mara – an American horror flick starring the stunningly beautiful Olga Kurylenko – expecting something like that. After all, Slumber pulled it off just a few months ago.

So, what does Mara bring to the mix? Nothing. It brings absolutely nothing to this specific kind of supernatural horror flick.

Mara 1.jpg
Olga Kurylenko in Mara

Now, before I start reviewing the movie, let me say I can easily see how some people will like Mara. If the bear minimum of entertainment and creepy factor is enough for you, if you like most of the cookie-cutter horror flicks that came out in the 2000s, if you’re down for a Mama/Annabelle/Urban Legend rip-off, then Mara might help you spend 90 minutes of you’re time with no regrets. So, don’t let my take on the movie put you off and just check it out for yourself.

Continue reading and check my final grade below… 

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The story here is simple (we’ve seen at least once a year in other horror flicks). Criminal psychologist Kate Fuller (Olga Kurylenko) has to support an investigation conducted by detective McCarthy (Lance E. Nicholson): a woman has seemingly strangled her husband in his sleep and the only witness is their eight-year-old daughter. The woman is skinny as hell, she can barely take on a sandwich, but that genius of McCarthy is 100% sure she twisted her husband’s neck and broke all of his bones with her bare hands.

Fortunately, Kate starts to dig into the mystery of an ancient demon (called Mara, such a threatening name), which kills people in their sleep. Why does she do that? Because she found a piece of paper on the crime scene with a name and an address written on. How original and creative! Why is a criminal psychologist investigating on a murder as opposed to defining psychological traits of victims and people under arrest? Nobody knows, and no character in the movie bothers to go any further into this.

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One of the people affected by sleep-paralysis  in Mara

Anyway, Kate begins to experience the same petrifying symptoms as all previous victims and spirals through a chilling nightmare to save herself and Sophie before she dares fall asleep again. How does Kate investigate on this alleged Mara demon? She goes to therapy sessions where a doctor tells people – and the audience – how sleep-paralysis works. And how do these people react? They go nuts, crying and screaming and nagging, claiming that Mara is after them and they can’t sleep otherwise they’ll die. This scene is one of my favourite in the movie, because it made me laugh, hysterically, so much: I never laughed that much about an awful scene since the fucking Bye Bye Man!

Fortunately (for me, not for Mara or for people who actually wish this flick was good), this movie is riddled with hilariously bad shit. It’s not just the pinnacle of formulaic and cookie-cutter horror films, it’s also really bad executed: first of all, it’s extremely repetitive. First time director Clive Tonge makes a truly poor directorial choice by showing the demon and starting the action from the get-go: instead of introducing and fleshing out characters, Mara starts with jump-scare after jump-scare, displaying the demon on screen straight away. However, due to the lack of a solid script, the movie becomes tiresome because we keep seeing the same exact scenes in it.

In other words, Mara is structured like this:

jump-scares in a sleep-paralysis situation – exposition – other jump-scares and sequences of sleep-paralysis – exposition again (continuously for 94 minutes)

Does it sound exciting to you? I thought so…

Mara gives me a perfect opportunity to talk about a fundamental distinction in film (and in horror in particular): the one between convention and trope.

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The demon in Mara

A convention is everything that involves the frame into which the story is set: an isolated cabin in the woods, a masked killer that seems invincible, an evil entity haunting a person/family, a group of sickos tormenting somebody. These are conventions, and you need them (there are exceptions, but they’re rare) to give your audience a general idea of what your movie will be about.

A trope (or cliché) is something that concerns the execution, something not necessary and often overused. For example, jump-scares, dream-sequences, a girl falling over while running away from the killer, the camera moving away from a character and coming back to show that character with an ugly face behind, a search scene that functions as a montage to tell the audience what they need to know. These are clichés. Keep in mind, clichés aren’t necessarily a bad thing (Wes Craven and Mike Flanagan, two of my favourite horror filmmakers, often relied on tropes in their films), but they can be terrible flaws whenever they’re crafted lazily and put in there only because the audience expects them.

Mara, unfortunately, utilises too many tropes and it does so in the most incompetent and obnoxious way possible.

Other than half-decent production values, albeit very uninspired and sleep-inducing, this movie features one solid performance by Olga Kurylenko: she’s way better than this miserable attempt to a horror flick deserves. Her problem, though, is that she doesn’t have a character to play.

In fact, there are no characters in Mara, only props. What’s Kate’s character? She’s kind and she’s a psychologist. What about the cop? He’s a cop, he yells a lot. What about the “expert” of night terrors? He’s an expert of night terrors (despite the fact that everything he says doesn’t have any scientific base!). And so on and so forth.

I should also recognise that Mara features two (literally only two) creepy sequences, both of which occur pretty early on in the movie. Other than that, though, Mara is an utter let-down and total failure.

I’m really sorry to say that, because – despite of what you might think – I don’t like to be too harsh on people’s work, but Mara was clearly made by a bunch of people who know nothing about psychology, let alone sleep-paralysis. This flick feels highly incompetent in every aspect, from the acting (other than Olga) to the screenplay, from the continuity (affected by glaring errors) to the cinematography, from the atmosphere to the creepy moments to the way the story is told.

Mara                           3/10