Sunday, August 10, 2014

DVD Review: Mara

Text by Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2014
Images from the Internet


Directed by Jacob Kondrup, Fredrik Hedberg, and Åke Gustafsson
Filmkon©ept Scandinavia
MVD Visual
77 minutes, 2013

The Swedes make some interesting and surprising creepy films. For example the title of Mara can be translated as either a succubus, a spirit who brings mishaps, or as a name it means “bitter” (as does Miriam, Mary or Marie).

Mara has a basic plot theme which can be found in films from the late ‘70s on: told in flashback, a group of friends (here its three women, two dudes) go to a desolate country farm house in which a murder took place years before that was witnessed by the protagonist, Jenny (Angelica Jansson); her mother stabbed her father multiple times in a jealous rage. Of course, mom has been released from the asylum, and people are dying. You’re probably saying, “Been there, seen that.”

Ah, but we’re talking about Scandinavian cinema, where there is a lot of smoke and mirrors, along with a sense of cinemafantastique. For a while I figured out the story, but then realized, no, I didn’t. That was a pleasant surprise. I did not see the second reveal at all. Yes, there are multiple reveals, resulting in a very interesting picture.

I know I have recently complained about how walking around a house in the dark with tense music for some length of time can turn anxiety into impatience, but the directors do a splendid job at keeping your attention throughout multiple, “what was that noise/shadow/figure?” sequences.

Most of the cast is fodder for nudity and body count, of course, as some things shall not go rewritten, but it doesn’t matter because there are only two key figures to the story: the first is the creepy mom (Mia Möller) who shows up in sequences that are reminiscent of Boris Karloff in Mario Bava’s 1963 I tre volti della paura (aka Black Sabbath). The other, of course, is the lead of Jenny. It’s hard to believe this is Jansson’s first role because she grabs it and plays full tilt. I’m sure it helps that the film is in her native Swedish (with English subtitles), but she gives a stellar performance, full of nuance and body language, from surprised to bored to, well, terror. Plus she is an incredibly attractive woman who has… huge tracks of land, and the director puts her in clothes that play that off well without making it only a cleavage-fest. That’s left for the other actors (though Jansson does get a chance to appear with ample bosom showing as well, early on during a dinner scene).

The look of the film, with its bluish colors and artistic flair – especially the dream and remembrance sequences – reminds me a bit of the Giallo cinema of the 1970 and ‘80s, such as the aforementioned Bava and Dario Argento, without all the strange angles and extreme zooming close-ups. After all, this is mean-what-you-say-say-what-you-mean Lutheran Sweden, not the pomp and circumstance Roman Catholic Italy. Even spectacle is more subtle up there. But gore? That’s another story. There is a long history of shock cinema coming from Sweden since the 1960s, enough to literally fill a book [HERE].

While an enjoyable film from beginning to end, it is not perfect. For example, one of the questions I have, and this isn’t just this one but in general: When something is a flashback, why do they include scenes with dialog where the person telling the story is not present? How would she know what was discussed, especially if they were talking about her and it’s a family secret? Okay, perhaps that is nitpicking, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong, does it?

There have been a lot of films of late from the European Theatre that have just dove head first into the muck and mire of gore, shock and, well, more gore. Here, however, they have taken a step back and kept the blood (most of it “after” the act), but put the suspense and terror to the front. Doing this, they have denied none of the artistic license of shadows moving, smart editing, spooky lighting and solid acting.

But this is Jansson’s picture, and a good one to start her portfolio (and as of this writing it remains her only credit in IMDB). She doesn’t let her beauty stand in the way of giving a strong performance where she must grimace, look confused, and terrified; then there’s the obligatory shower scene, of course. I’m hoping she’s given more chances than modeling in fashion and men’s mags.

There are some nice extras included. The first is a 75 minute day-by-day shooting diary for the seven-day gig. One nice thing is they show you how they set up the shot, and then they actually show you the scene, so you can see what they are talking about (don’t forget to turn on the English captions for the extras). What’s also enjoyable is you get to see some more, well, body parts. Third, one occurance that is on this extra that isn’t in the film as much is Angelica’s bright smile.

The second is a four-minute piece of Hedberg meeting Angelica for the first time to see if she is right for the part. This is followed by a brief phone conversation (while driving!) with one of the other directors on how it felt like a positive experience. Obviously, it all worked out.

Of course there’s the trailer for the film, and a three-minute in-house video interview with Jansson dressed in total model mode at the test screening, discussing her experience. She is definitely bright (a degree in Environmental Science!), and she says though she won’t chase roles, she would be happy to do another. Good. She also posits that the film turned out better than she expected. Amen, sister.

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