Mandrake offers up some moody but muddled folk horror


Lynne Davison directs a Shudder original that compensates with atmosphere what it lacks in plot coherence.

When we talk about thankless jobs, we think teacher, or nurse, jobs that society cannot function without, but which are consistently undervalued and unappreciated. But what about the humble parole officer? They get it from both sides, in which they’re treated with hostility by the clients they’re tasked with monitoring, and suspicion from polite society who believes they’re at least partially responsible for whatever said clients do going forward. If the practical challenges of being a parole officer weren’t hard enough, sometimes they’re faced with the supernatural as well, as seen in Lynne Davison’s Mandrake, which efficiently checks off all the folk horror boxes, but not much else.

Cathy (Deirdre Mullins) is a parole officer in what looks like the most miserable town in Northern Ireland. Within the first few minutes after we meet her, she’s assaulted by a client, and her day only goes downhill from there. She’s assigned a new case, overseeing the release of “Bloody” Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), previously convicted of murdering her abusive husband. One would think that, given the circumstances of the crime, Mary would be welcomed home, but, rumored to be a child-killing witch who’s in league with the Devil, she’s treated like a pariah when she returns, feared and hated.

Middle-aged and hobbling around with a cane, Mary hardly seems like a threat to anyone, and mostly just wants to be left alone on her farm. Initially disbelieving of all the nonsense about witchcraft and Satanic worship, Cathy feels sorry for her, and the circumstances she’s found herself in, rejected by the world simply for defending herself. Cathy doesn’t exactly lead a life filled with joy and excitement either. Recently divorced, she’s growing increasingly distant from her sickly young son, who openly prefers his stepmother over her. She and Mary aren’t kindred spirits, exactly, but maybe Cathy understands her a little better than most of her other clients.

That is, until two children go missing near Mary’s farm. 

Mandrake (Shudder)

If you’re watching Mandrake strictly for the vibes, it serves that purpose with aplomb. All of the folk horror benchmarks are present: a witch, a creepy forest, a mysterious horned creature lurking about in the aforesaid creepy forest, crude totems made from tree branches, etc. Mary’s dimly lit house looks so much like a cave you can almost feel its damp chill. Atmosphere and imagery are where the film truly succeeds. Where it struggles is in trying to balance both a crime drama and a horror film in a limited running time. Matt Harvey’s script certainly doesn’t lack intention, and it’s served well by its co-leads Mullins and Crotty, but it quickly loses focus once it veers into horror.

It’s not entirely clear what’s happening after that point, except fire and chaos and screaming, and it’s not helped by an intrusive, distracting score, and the fact that the nighttime scenes appear to be lit with a single lightbulb (you’d think Midsommar and the recent Pearl would have proven that horror is just as effective in broad daylight). There’s nothing wrong with keeping an audience in the dark (here both literally and figuratively), but when you’re unable to distinguish one character from another it makes it rather more challenging.

Mandrake is at its most interesting during its quiet moments between Cathy and Mary, like when Cathy gently puts a tracking bracelet around Mary’s burn-scarred ankle. Harvey’s suggestion that they are two sides of the same coin, regarded with distaste by a world who thinks that punishment should be eternal, is an interesting one, but only gets a surface exploration in order to make room for the less interesting horror aspects. It’s ultimately a victim of its own ambition – wanting to do too much, with not enough time.

Mandrake is now available on Shudder.

Mandrake Trailer:

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Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

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