The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Shudder] - MANDRAKE | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Shudder] - MANDRAKE

mandrake review
Two children disappear following the release of a notorious killer from prison.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lynne Davison

Starring: Deirdre Mullins, Derbhle Crotty, Jude Hill, Paul Kennedy

mandrake poster

Lynne Davison's directorial debut Mandrake takes its title from the spooky plant root that often resembles a miniature human, a sort of Satanic cousin of all those slices of toast that bear the image of Jesus. The mandrake root has long been associated with folk rituals, largely down to its hallucinogenic qualities, and it even figured in the Harry Potter stories. Davison's grimy film couldn't be further from the tone of JK Rowling's blockbuster creation. A social thriller that quickly morphs into folk-horror, it's engaging and compelling as the former but once it introduces the latter element it all starts to become a little too familiar.

mandrake review

The film doesn't make anything political of its Northern Ireland setting, but it's telling that this is a country whose citizens went through a truth and reconciliation process at the end of a violent conflict. Those responsible for heinous crimes in the name of a political cause were released from prison and accepted back into their community. It's ironic then that the antagonist of Mandrake, Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), is given no such second chance when she's released from a 30-year prison sentence. Mary's crime wasn't to set off a bomb in a crowded street but to kill her abusive husband in an act of self-defence when he attempted to set her on fire. As killers go, she seems relatively sympathetic, but the unimaginative locals of her rural community have given her the nickname "Bloody Mary," and they whisper rumours that she's involved in witchcraft.

mandrake review

The one sympathetic figure is probation officer Cathy (Deirdre Mullins), who takes on the duties of monitoring Mary upon her return to the desolate farmhouse she vacated three decades earlier. Mary proves a sinister figure, and seems to spookily know details of Cathy's private life she shouldn't have access to. There's something of a Lector/Clarisse relationship between the pair, as Cathy tries not to let Mary get to her. But get to her she does. Both women have one thing in common - they both had their sons taken away from them. Mary's boy child was placed in an institution while Cathy's son Luke (Belfast star Jude Hill) now lives with his father (Paul Kennedy), who is the town's police sergeant, and his current wife (Roisin Gallagher). As Mary speaks of her loss, it sparks something nasty lurking deep within Cathy.

Cathy finds herself struggling to defend Mary when two young siblings disappear the very day she's released from prison. Immediately the whole town turns on Mary, and for a while the movie is a gritty thriller examining the issue of mob mentality and how people are always burdened with the stigma of past actions. But then it takes a sharp turn into the realm of folk-horror. Supernatural elements that were merely hinted at previously are brought to the fore. The mystery of what happened to the missing children is dismissed as the film presents us with its outright villain, and the atmospheric ambiguity of the film's opening acts dissipates in a second half that plays like it's rushing to a conclusion.

mandrake review

Madden and Laidlaw are always watchable as they perform their unsettling dance around one another, and Mandrake works best when it's examining the dark lengths mothers can go to when it comes to protecting their own children. The film's best scenes play out in Mary's kitchen, an everyday setting as far from a cobweb decorated haunted house as you could get, as she taunts a woman who wants to believe that all people have the potential for goodness with the idea that maybe some are simply made to commit evil. When it later expands into the surrounding forest and loses sight of this simple dynamic, Mandrake gets a little lost in the woods.

 is on Shudder from November 10th.

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