Dr. Kate Fuller (Olga Kurylenko), an up-and-coming forensic psychologist and the most beautiful woman on the planet, spends the running time of Clive Tonge’s Mara (2018) being haunted by the thing in the Henry Fuseli painting. It’s no chubby, brooding anti-cherub, either, but a full-on, twisted-limb, straggle-haired hag that crawls on top of you while you sleep, holds you down, and strangles you. Its name, we learn early on, is Mara.
It’s actually more accurately dab tsuam, a Laotian spirit being that seems to be responsible for the real-world mass death of 117 Hmong refugees. The Hmong people who fled to the United States after the communist takeover of Laos in the 1970s found themselves geographically scattered and increasingly alienated from their religious traditions. Unable to worship properly, and without access to the shamans and appeasement rituals that would otherwise keep the dab tsuam at bay, their certainty that it was coming for them literally killed them in their sleep. It’s said that Wes Craven took the idea and turned it into Freddy Krueger.
The movie starts on a sleep-paralysis riff (but never adequately develops it) and ends with some noodlings about the nature of guilt and what happens to you when you repress it. The photography makes it all easy to look at. But the script stumbles early and never recovers, and the music and sound design are in open revolt with the director’s better horror instincts. The camera lingers on something that might be Mara. We can’t be sure, until it moves. And for those audience members who still aren’t sure, the helpful blaring atonal music cue will either convince them or give them cover to fake it.