The word mandrake refers to the root of a real plant of the nightshade family. Hallucinogenic and poisonous, these plants have long been associated with magic, mythology, and folklore. In the Harry Potter universe, and in medieval times, the plant was believed to shriek as it was uprooted from the ground, killing or driving insane those who did not block their ears against the noise. Mandrakes are easily recognizable, as their roots resemble the human form. Along with the more malevolent uses for mandrake, the plant has also been used as an aphrodisiac, to cure various ailments, and to induce sleep.
Mandrake has a premise that sounds like the beginnings of a BBC crime drama; Cathy Madden, a probation officer, is tasked with rehabilitating a woman who is coming off of a 20 year sentence. Her charge, “Bloody” Mary Laidlaw, was imprisoned for killing her husband with an axe – after he beat her half to death and set her on fire. When we first meet Cathy (Deirdre Mullins), she’s dealing with one of the young men she has on her caseload. Working with an older woman seems like it will be a decent change for her, even if the local children all seem to think that Mary is a witch.
Right away upon meeting Mary, she tries to push at Cathy’s boundaries, asking Cathy personal questions and telling her about the father of her own child. While Cathy is used to clients who try to push her buttons, she’s clearly a bit shaken up by her first encounter with Mary. Immediately after this encounter, Cathy goes to pick up her son, Luke, from her ex’s house; he asks about Mary and tells her how as a child, local kids were told that if they were bad, Bloody Mary would get them.
Cathy’s ex, Jason (Paul Kennedy), is also in law enforcement – a police Sergeant, he’s one of the first people notified when two children go missing near Mary’s home. Cathy helps with the search for the children, and this first segment of the film truly feels akin to many detective thrillers; it’s dark, grim, and always overcast. The only hints of the supernatural are in Mary’s reputation and the fact that she is a bit strange.
The dynamic between Cathy, Jason, and his new wife is interesting; they share custody of her son Luke, and clearly all of the adults in the picture care for him greatly. Unfortunately, not enough time is spent exploring the relationship between this family, which leads to some problems in the later half of the story. It’s no easy task to combine a character-driven crime thriller with a supernatural mystery; Mandrake does not spend nearly enough time exploring character relationships and motivations, and the film suffers for this.
The second half of the film leans further into the folk horror elements that the first half merely hinted at. Mandrake becomes dark, confusing, and anxiety-inducing. Our protagonist finds herself in the most compromising situation she’s been in with a client yet; she’s no longer in control, and for the rest of the film, she’ll be trying to get that back. Deirdre Mullins and Derbhle Crotty (as Mary Laidlaw) both give very strong opposing performances. Mary’s motivations are unclear, but Mullins plays her character with a wild-eyed ferocity that shows she’s not to be trusted.
Lynne Davison’s directorial feature debut is full of the visual language expected of this brand of folk horror. Overhead shots of wooded areas, gooey soil and mud, mysterious creatures of wood and bone. There are quite a few scenes with effective gross-out elements, backed up with solid sound effects. Despite all these strengths, Matt Harvey’s screenplay is missing a clarity that would make Mandrake truly effective. There is a story here about motherhood, female strength, and fidelity; unfortunately it’s a bit buried beneath the supernatural mystery.
Mandrake made its world premiere at the 2022 Glasgow FrightFest; the Northern Irish film finds its streaming home on Shudder on November 10th, 2022. Shudder is amassing a solid collection of female-driven folk-horror; Mandrake will fit right in along the likes of She Will and Gwen.
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