Few Will Scream for Mandrake (2022)
First Non-Festival Release: November 11, 2022 (Digital/Streaming Platforms)
Director: Lynne Davison
Writer: Matt Harvey
Runtime: 85 Minutes
Starring: Deirdre Mullins, Derbhle Crotty, Paul Kennedy
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
No-nonsense probation officer, Cathy (Deirdre Mullins), offers to take an assignment away from her coworker who is seemingly too spooked to do it herself. Her latest charge? Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), also known as Bloody Mary, who has spent the last twenty years in prison for murder. Rumored to be a witch, she lives on the outskirts of town in a rundown home. Despite her steely demeanor, Cathy truly believes in redemption. Her faith is tested when two children go missing after wandering near Mary’s property. Rage grips the town who decide to take matters into their own hands and ensure justice is served.
Promising plot threads unwind into nothing in the painfully average witch thriller Mandrake.
A confident first act slowly fizzles out in a dismal slow burn in Northern Irish film Mandrake. Starting out strong, the almost legendary story of a small-town Bloody Mary is shared in a rather shoe-horned way to a woman who has presumably lived in this town her whole life. Cathy is not meant to take her case, but agrees when a colleague voices her discontent at the luck of the draw. The dominos continue to fall into place as she manages to fit the perfect profile, in Mary’s eyes, of someone who can help her beyond her probation.
While its story and plot progression is middling at best, what kills Mandrake most decidedly is its lack of mystery. From the get go it is evident exactly who is evil and who is not. For stories like this to work, typically, there is some type of buildup where characters doubt the intentions of the antagonist. Besides Cathy’s impartiality, an important trait in her line of work, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind who is behind the child abductions and murders. There is also no doubt in the viewer’s eyes either. At no point in the narrative, is the audience challenged on this, which makes it dull and uninteresting.
The lack of character development ties in with this issue. Aside from some unusual moments of decision making, the central trio doesn't change much throughout the film. They simply react to whatever is happening around them and move on to the next set piece or confrontation. It gets boring. Even leading player Cathy isn’t given a convincing arc. In the end, her motivation boils down to being good at her job and connecting with her kid. She makes little progress, or even attempts to make movement, on either of these pressing issues in her life while she investigates the missing children. The wasted opportunities hurt the film more than anything.
Beyond its sagging story, the production values of the film do not help at all. Visually dark and unappealing, the film is shot in a way that obscures much of the action from the viewer. In some scenes, this is reasonable but the presence of darkness takes away from what could be powerful or unsettling scenes. Instead, viewers are treated to the same dull color palette that every middling low budget horror film relies on to cover up the production value and setting mistakes.
Thankfully, strong performances save the film from being irredeemable. Stern and dutiful Cathy is brought to life by Deirdre Mullins in a way that feels authentic. Her grief as a mother disconnected from her child is palpable in ways that words alone cannot describe. Every heartbreaking catch of the breath and strained denial of her ex-husband’s wife’s niceties comes through beautifully. Rounding out the cast, Derbhle Crotty’s mysterious witch portrayal is adequately creepy while Paul Kennedy’s strait laced police officer allows for both women to be bolder in their choices.
Many of the same problems that befall similar folk horror films infect this British slow burn. Unsteady pacing and dull characters make for a thoroughly dull viewing experience. There are very few surprises in store for audiences here despite what one might think going into a film like this. This extends to the generic setting and dull look of the film. Nearly everything about it looks and feels tired, making it a less engaging and interesting film. The energy is livened up only by the strong cast members and the interesting lore behind the story. Fans of small-town horror and witchcraft might find something palatable here but for most other horror fans there isn’t much to reap.
Overall Score? 5/10