This might be the best thing a critic can say about a new horror film: Two nights after seeing Mara, the sleep-paralysis thriller from first-time director Clive Tonge, I had a nightmare about it. Better still, that nightmare precisely replicated scenes from the film. There I lay, someplace between waking and sleeping, staring out into the shadows of my apartment, convinced for a breath that there loomed, at the doorway, some still and silent figure. I blinked and gasped and stared. Soon the terrible details of this figure’s face resolved back into my humdrum home: a hook hung over the door, a splash of streetlight from outside. But for a second there, the night teemed with terrors, much as it had way back in 1989, when my junior high self saw Philippe Mora’s alien-abduction film Communion.
Mara’s subject is, deep down, the same as Communion’s, though the Mutual UFO Network crowd will never admit it. Mara concerns sleep paralysis, that sensation that millions have felt, in the middle of the night, of being awake but unable to move as unknowable forces prowl and maybe even prey. It stands to reason that your brain will interpret its shadowy presences in a way steeped in your culture or interests. While my mother imagined angels and demons, my young self — like millions — imagined Whitley Strieber’s and Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s naif-ish, pool-eyed star travelers. Rodney Ascher’s likably scary 2015 documentary The Nightmare examined the phenomenon with some reportorial rigor while also staging superior re-enactments of the sleep-paralysis experiences of several interviewees.
Now, with Mara, Tonge and screenwriter Jonathan Frank have promoted sleep paralysis from the subtext of horror films to the subject, and it’s easy to see why. The scenario of lying trapped in bed while some malevolent presence jacks with you is horror stripped right down to the bone. A scene of Olga Kurylenko nodding off in the bathtub is as cheaply inevitable as it is archetypal. But it works, triggering a ripe panic but also protective and sexual impulses. We see her face in close-up, her mouth just beneath the surface of the water but her nose just above, as her eyes take in some impossible thing we glimpse in silhouette behind the shower curtain. The figure hauls itself upward, extending long, limblike arms, and Kurylenko’s character shakes in terror — fight-or-flight has kicked in, but her body will do neither.
Like many smart horror filmmakers, Tonge and Frank kick things off with a bid for authenticity. “Over 40 percent of the world’s population suffers from sleep paralysis,” declares a title card at the film’s start. (I cleaned up the grammar a bit.) But that card’s second sentence might be the scariest thing in the movie, at least if you care about precision in language: “Two-thirds of them describe being attacked by a demonic entity.” Two-thirds of 40 percent of the world’s population believe that literal biblical demons attack them in the night? That two-thirds of 40 percent believe they’re attacked by creatures that the filmmakers carelessly shorthand as “demonic”? That two-thirds of 40 percent describe the sensation of being attacked — by creatures that the filmmakers carelessly shorthand as “demonic” — but don’t necessarily believe that the gates of hell have opened an on-ramp in their bedrooms? Isn’t the true definition of demonic filmmakers those who task their viewers with computing fractions of a percentage?
Whatever the answer, that sloppiness doesn’t bode well for the film that follows. Mara’s story finds Kurylenko’s Kate Fuller, a criminal psychologist, set upon by night creatures as she investigates a case involving sleep paralysis. (Memorable line: “I told you! My husband was killed by a sleep demon!”) The case takes her to a sleep-paralysis support group, where one patient shout-warns, “If you sleep tonight, you are dying,” and to a lab studying the phenomenon, populated by scientists who can’t accept what Kate is discovering — that in some cases, the figure in the dream will kill you.
The first several sleep-scare scenes have a shivery power, especially as the unknown intrudes on everyday life. One stellar scare invites us to stare into the background of a long shot and tease out whether something lurks beneath a table. But that eyes-peeled horror is the exception, and by the film’s midpoint, the sleep scenes become tedious, even comic.
Why is Mara, the “haggard old woman” who kills some sleep-paralysis sufferers, so committed to doing slo-mo shadow theater before claiming her victims? Tonge juices this sub-Ring story of characters being “marked” for death with some noisy jump scares, some clever and effective. The staging here often proves more arresting than what’s in the script.
Eventually, we get stuck in a cabin with its interior papered over with the biggest, silliest conspiracy wall I’ve ever seen in a movie, complete with newspaper clippings and connections made by string. “Get a Twitter!” I barked at the screen. Perhaps to honor horror tradition, the women in the cast get the full tense scenes of lying there paralyzed for the delectation of monsters and viewers; the dudes, meanwhile, commit horrible acts of self-mutilation and immolation. Mara offers some strong scenes that evoke actual night terrors, so much so that I carried them with me to bed two nights later. But its generic narrative details dissolved by the time the credits rolled.