Big jump scares are all very well and good in horror films, but sometimes you’d rather something that creeps up on you.
Set in rural Northern Ireland, Lynne Davison’s Mandrake is very much a slow-burn, splicing crime mystery with witchcraft and folk horror before things escalate to something else entirely.
If you like your horror like a fairground ghost train, it’s probably not going to be your cup of tea. But if you’re a fan of films where the dread slowly creeps in, you might want to read on.
What’s Mandrake about?
The story follows Cathy Madden (Deirdre Mullins), a troubled probation officer who takes on the case of “Bloody” Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), a woman who’s just been released from prison following the brutal murder of her husband two decades ago.
Laidlaw, unsurprisingly, has become a local legend during her 20 years in prison. When Madden pulls up at the gate of her ramshackle cottage there are already two children waiting outside. “We want to see the witch,” says one. But later, when the those same two children go missing and a village-wide search ensues, it becomes clear there’s something sinister at play.
The question over whether Laidlaw is simply a recluse who killed her abusive husband or something more supernatural is one that hangs over Mandrake‘s first half. It’s an effective tension-builder. Madden wants to believe the best, but Laidlaw doesn’t make it easy.
“Bloody” Mary Laidlaw is so perfectly creepy
Mandrake is worth watching for Crotty’s performance alone, imbuing Laidlaw with the kind of unnerving, starey-eyed intensity that makes the legends about her character immediately believable. Even if she didn’t have anything to do with the children’s disappearance, we know why people think she did.
We know why the community suspects Laidlaw of witchcraft, too. Between the little wooden crosses hanging around her property and her way of appearing to know a little too much about people, it seems clear that there’s something odd going on with our protagonist.
Matt Harvey’s screenplay comes to life in her loaded exchanges with Madden, Laidlaw’s probation officer. During an ankle tag fitting during their first meeting, Laidlaw asks if she has kids. Madden, whose son lives with his dad and stepmother, declines to talk about her personal life. “I can see you with a little boy,” Laidlaw replies. “They took mine. Put him in a home. No mother should have a stranger bring up their child. That’s not right. Is it, Cathy?”
Sinister moments like this are peppered throughout Harvey’s script, which is filled with the kind of realistic dialogue that makes the horror — when it does come — all the more shocking.
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Are there any negatives?
Without giving two much away, Mandrake is a film of two halves. There’s the slow, winding tension of the opening act, and then the gory, locked-room suspense of the final chapter. This jump may divide people — if you’ve seen Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, you’ll understand — and personally I’d have preferred the film to spend a little longer building tension before the reveal.
But no matter where you land on this, the overall story is still undeniably effective. Davison pulls us into a gloomy world of disappearances, dread, and dank woodlands where the shadowy landscape is its own monster, the mysteries are old, and the answers don’t come easy.