Over the last several years, folk horror has seen a resurgence in popularity. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, British folk horror delivered memorable classics like Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. More recently, The Witch, Apostle, The Ritual, Men, and Midsommar – to name just a few – have sparked new interest in the subgenre. Horror is often at its most effective when it generates scares from benign, and familiar or safe, places. And folk horror locates its horror in the very places where we go to escape the perceived threats of urban life. Now the most recent Shudder release, Irish horror movie Mandrake looks to trade on the same type of unsettling scares. Though it’s an under-the-radar release the small handful of critics who’ve comment on it have really like Mandrake.
Probation office Cathy Madden agrees to take on the case of a local legend – ‘Bloody’ Mary Laidlaw. Just released from prison, ‘Bloody Mary ‘ murdered her husband years ago. Locals claims that she’s a witch who practiced Satanic rituals. Initially, Cathy refuses to believe local ghost stories and goes about her job. But when two local kids go missing in the woods by Bloody Mary’s property, Cathy finds herself drawn into a disturbing mystery.
Mandrake Effectively Moody, Ambiguous Thriller
From its opening scene, Mandrake establishes – and maintains – a gloomy tone. Irish filmmaker Lynne Davison shows a grasp of the genre and maturity in filmmaking well beyond her relatively limited filmography. By and large, Davison avoids more traditional jump scares, opting to focus initially on the mystery surrounding ‘Bloody Mary’ Laidlaw and the missing children. Much of this mystery hinges on the give-and-take between the serious but earnest Madden and the eccentric Laidlaw. Is ‘Bloody Mary’ a woman hardened by prison and village gossip? Or is she everything her neighbours fear? Screenwriter Matt Harvey doesn’t let these questions linger too long. In this regard, Mandrake doesn’t function quite as well as a mystery thriller, though this likely wasn’t the intent.
By and large, Davison avoids more traditional jump scares, opting to focus initially on the mystery surrounding ‘Bloody Mary’ Laidlaw and the missing children.
Instead, Davison and Harvey allow folk horror’s ritualistic horrors to make their way to the surface. Here, the mystery shifts to Laidlaw’s motivations and the extent to which the supernatural is or isn’t present. Moreover, Mandrake’s strengths kick in at this point of the movie’s second act. Rather than leaning on explicit gore, Mandrake allows its dark atmosphere and naturally disturbing subject matter to drive the terror. On one hand, Davison maintains a methodical pace and ambiguous narrative. Yet the thriller never drags nor does its finale feel rushed or unnecessarily over-the-top. There’s an openness to the ending and its meaning that chills ensuring the movie will stay with you past the credits.
Mandrake’s ‘Bloody Mary’ Laidlaw a Subtly Terrifying Horror Villain
If the atmosphere strikes a consistent note, the storytelling – and, more specifically, the thematic undertones – feel less focused. To some extent, the lack of focus intentionally follows from writer Matt Harvey’s ambiguous approach to the narrative. That is, Mandrake avoids spoon-feeding the audience, foregoing lazy expository dialogue. Much about Mary Laidlaw’s motivations and the meaning in the ending will escape some viewers. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a shortcoming. Harvey’s screenplay includes enough snippets of folklore to engage and horrify in equal measures. But Mandrake’s bigger meaning diverges by the final act to a point that isn’t merely ambiguous. While it’s a matter that doesn’t drag this folk horror down, it does set something of a glass ceiling on things.
…Mandrake avoids spoon-feeding the audience, foregoing lazy expository dialogue.
Of course, the performances uniformly ensure Mandrake is a compelling watch. None of the performers will be familiar to North American audiences. Still the cast in its entirety is excellent. As the steely probation officer Cathy Madden, Deirdre Mullins turns in a subtly complex and layered performance. What she delivers is a woman who strives to appear cold and professional but struggles to connect with her son and often seems aimless when confronted by her ex-husband and his new family. But it’s Derbhle Crotty’s “Bloody’ Mary Laidlaw who steals the show. Though Crotty’s filmography is limited, she’s equal parts captivating and terrifying as the film’s enigmatic villain. Regardless of what she’s doing, any scene in which she’s present, Crotty dominates the screen.
Mandrake Reinforces Shudder as an MVP For Horror Streaming
From its subject matter to its pacing to its atmospheric imagery, Mandrake is pure folk horror. Though some viewers may be dissatisfied with the lack of more traditional scares, Davison invests her thriller with plenty of disturbing imagery. Throw in gloomy tone, disturbing folklore, and ambiguous storytelling and Mandrake more than delivers for its hour and 25 minutes or runtime. All of the performances – but Crotty’s in particular – are stellar. Halloween may be past, but Shudder continues to deliver some strong independent genre fare.