Lynne Davison’s directorial debut, Mandrake asserts its woodland folklore with the tagline “evil takes root.” Matt Harvey’s screenplay sifts through dark, earthen fantasies about squealing plant roots—another horror tale by Mother Earth. It’s not as visually stimulating as the fungal freakshow Gaia or buffets of brutality like The Feast, resting more on quieter maternal narratives. Nevertheless, it’s a mood-first indie with dirty fingernails, best saved for fans of dreadful Irish fare such as The Hole in the Ground.
Deirdre Mullins plays probation officer Cathy Madden, a single mother splitting custody with ex-husband police sergeant Jason (Paul Kennedy). Cathy’s latest assignment is local pariah “Bloody” Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), dubbed a witch after murdering her husband. Townsfolk whisper about Mary’s past while Cathy’s determined to clear her client’s name. Then two children go missing. Cathy desperately searches to avoid heaping blame on Mary, but also thinks of the panicking parents. How would she feel if her son Luke (Jude Hill) became another statistic of Bloody Mary, should gossip and accusations prove true?
There’s a solemn grimness to Mandrake, whether from dim countryside cinematography navigating night’s shadow or blunt conversations between grief-riddled characters. Cathy’s forced to interact with Jason’s pregnant second wife Grace (Roisin Gallagher), while Mary stares daggers at mobs who form outside her cabin’s windows. Harvey’s script balances small-town paranoia and supernatural beliefs in heretic rituals, establishing an ecosystem where both can thrive. Those more enamored with mythological practices and black magic will find value in Davison’s mysterious vision, despite it coming in lower volumes compared to forested Irish creature features like The Hallow.
That said, the ties that bind social commentary and mandrake storytelling aren’t securely fastened. Knowledgeable students of folkloric histories will enter Mandrake with helpful expectations, while newcomers may struggle with a film that tells softly and shows infrequently. Parallels overlap two mothers—Mary’s looming son Thomas (Seamus O’Hara) flanks his newly freed mother—as parental figures tempted by obscene forces to protect their kin at all costs. Neither Davison nor Harvey hides Mary’s dabbling with occult magnificence, because Mandrake cares more about comparing and contrasting do-gooding Cathy with husband-killer Mary, and how motherhood drives both their motivations. It’s a well-intended family drama with a screeching soil-grown cameo, but not one that smoothly locks together.
I return to the lack of “show” because sporadically, Mandrake is unflinchingly morose. Child abductions, slain heroes and gunky liquids force-fed through plastic tubes make the horrors of Mandrake more civilized than fabled—yet the imbalance weakens the impact. Special effects sprout a mandrake creature and spill blood, but less invigorated dramatics cause plotlines to meander. The crossover of Cathy’s defensive professional stance, Mary’s ritualistic teases, Jason’s ongoing investigation of missing adolescents and Thomas’ brutish devotion muddies cleaner narrative waters. All roads lead to an inevitable confrontation, but an airlessness takes over as a lax command of key conclusions dulls moral implications that should have sharp stingers.
Mandrake tiptoes into the Irish horror canon without making much noise, but shouldn’t be skipped by genre fans with more appreciation for natural folklore bred right underneath our feet. Davison’s debut solidly manages its conversational tension to a point, with sturdy performances from Mullins and Crotty, but I like a bit more punch with my horror—in this subgenre’s terms, think She Will. Davison can’t overcome this, as the film’s threads unravel in the third act. A more pungent concoction of community terror and conjured trauma would be able to hold stronger, not disappointingly drift away like a lullaby into the wind.
Director: Lynne Davison
Writer: Matt Harvey
Starring: Deirdre Mullins, Derbhle Crotty, Jude Hill, Paul Kennedy
Release Date: November 11, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.