Review: Mara

Most of Sweden’s “real” horror movies are independent low-budget films, like Mara, which started production in 2009 and is now finally ready to unleash its thrills and chills on viewers.

In an old Scandinavian tradition, mara dvdMara revolves around Jenny, a blonde 20-something who visits a cabin in the woods with some friends in order to confront bad memories and a crappy childhood. This kitchen-sink theme is coloured crimson red when someone or something shows its face among the trees, and drives Jenny to… well, she is not sure and neither are we. Without revealing too much of the plot, there is blood, murder and ghostly apparitions involved too.

Described as a psychological horror-thriller, Mara makes great efforts to fulfill your genre expectations by using all the tricks in the book. Creepy music, slamming doors, false scares, shadows running in front of the camera and a remote cabin in the forest. Add some seriously mentally injured people to that mix, and you get a soup that is not only served cold, but also lacks all the spices a master chef would throw in. I don’t mind the low budget and the film’s indie status, but most of the creative choices are unfortunately not so creative. Horror film makers are usually very knowledgeable about the genre and its tools, but here all the don’ts of the how-to manual are stacked on top of each other like a tower of pancakes.

One of the major drawbacks and creative faults of the film is that virtually all of the story is told in flashbacks and with extremely expositional dialogue, which is not what one expects from genre-concious creators today. If it was the conciously chosen method, it again points at decisions that have nothing to do with budgets. I understand it is cheaper to film a girl sitting in a chair and talking about what happened, than actually filming a girl doing things in a house, but here the exposition is made into a main feature of the film, and that simply gets tiresome after a while. Even film school rejects understand the principle of “show, don’t tell” in movie making. After all, Mara is not a radio play.

Generous bosom shots aside (a rare thing in Scandinavian horror), mostly offered by lead actress and glamour model Angelica Jansson, it does not help that most of the actors’ dialogue and lines sound as if they are reading a grocery shopping list. I don’t mind amateur actors that don’t have months of preparation time and also take directions from an inexperienced helmer, but they could at least seem passionate about their work. Granted, the story is dark and the atmosphere is depressing, but there is no glow or drive in any of the actors. Again, that is not a budget problem!

Maybe the problem lies in having three directors on board? No, as direction, cinematography and editing is competent and consistent, even though the lightning isn’t always great; colours are bleak, and one can only hope that was on purpose in order to express the fear and uncertainty that the characters feel. The problem lies in the many creative choices and in the story itself, as the easy solutions seem to have been preferred over something original. Thankfully, the film is over in less than 77 minutes.

As Mara can never appeal to a mainstream audience and there is little hope of TV time, one would think the writers, producers and directors would have pushed the film beyond this mess.

Rated 3 of 10.

Directed by Åke Gustafsson, Fredrik Hedberg, Jacob Kondrup.

Sweden, 2013.