Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Clive Tonge's feature debut benefits from good pacing, solid performances and a focus on building up an atmosphere of dread."

Psychologists and members of the counselling professions have a very clear rule about not letting their own emotions come into play when interacting with clients, and it's there for a reason. It can be particularly difficult where children are involved, which is one of the reasons why they are generally treated by specialists. Kate (Olga Kurylenko) is not a specialist. She's only recently started working in a new role with her local police department. When she arrives at the scene of a brutal murder in which the dead man's wife is the prime suspect, she immediately recalls her own feelings when her mother was hospitalised during her childhood, and she makes their frightened little girl (Mackenzie Imsand) a promise she may not be able to keep.

At first dismissing what she hears as the babbling of a delusional woman and confused child, and chalking up her own strange experiences to suggestibility and overwork, Kate gradually begins to suspect that something else is afoot. A patient in one of her therapy groups fills us in on the basics of mara lore - but could he be the killer himself, inspired by his obsession, driven mad by his fear of going to sleep? A series of troubling events leave our heroine certain of just one thing: if the truth cannot be uncovered, more people will die.

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In essence a pretty simple, by the book ghost story, Clive Tonge's feature debut benefits from good pacing, solid performances and a focus on building up an atmosphere of dread. Its subject is well chosen in this regard - legends of the mara can be found, in one form or another, all across Europe, the Middle East, India and China; it's thought to be one of the first monsters humans ever told stories about. For primitive people, few things trigger fear of the supernatural like nightmares, especially when they're combined with sleep apnoea (the mara is often described as sitting on people's chests or throttling them) and/or sleep paralysis. Indeed, many viewers of this film are likely to have had those experiences themselves and relate all too closely to the experiences of its central characters.

James Edward Barker is undoubtedly over the top and given to employing the bursting-a-crisp-packet-behind-the-head technique of instilling fear in viewers, but it suits Tonge's style well enough and the film gets away with it better than most do. Rusty Dunn's sound design really adds to the creepiness in quieter scenes and there's great work from [Rec] alumnus Javier Botet as the titular creature itself, using off-kilter dance techniques to instil a real sense of something unnatural and other. Kurylenko plays it straight but achieves a good balance between conveying the authority of a professional whom we ought to listen to and the growing uncertainty of a woman who may be out of her depth.

Whilst themes around responsibility and guilt feel a little underdeveloped, some of their potential squandered, this is still an effective thriller with some properly scary moments. Just bear in mind that research into sleep paralysis tells us it's contagious. If you start having strange dreams and waking up breathless, it's probably not anything supernatural. Just in case, you might want to keep this old trick in mind: if the mara won't leave you alone at night, you can sometimes scare it off by inviting it to join you for breakfast.

Reviewed on: 11 Aug 2020
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Mara packshot
Sophie wakes up, hears scary noises from her parents' bedroom and sees her dad dead. A psychologist arrives there to determine what happened.
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Director: Clive Tonge

Writer: Clive Tonge, Jonathan Frank

Starring: Olga Kurylenko, Craig Conway, Javier Botet

Year: 2018

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US


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