Lynne Davison’s Mandrake delivers on the tension and has an intriguingly creepy premise, but with such a tight edit it feels a little rushed.
Take a second to imagine the moment before a fright; that seemingly-endless instant of heart-in-your-throat, full-body tension, when you’re taut like a bow string waiting to snap as soon as the killer jumps out from behind the door, or the ghost comes careening out of the shadows. Lynne Davison’s Mandrake is that feeling elongated over just shy of ninety minutes, a thriller that really delivers on the tension, even if the narrative is somewhat muddled and a tad too quick.
Cathy (Deirdre Mullins) is a probation officer, reluctantly overseeing the rehabilitation of ‘Bloody’ Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), a woman recently released from a 20-year prison sentence for killing her husband with an axe. Mary is somewhat of a local legend, the witch who lives in the woods and worships the devil, and Cathy, only somewhat perturbed, tries to give her the benefit of the doubt and reintegrate her into society. But when two children go missing, Cathy finds herself entangled in a web of murder and creepy urban folklore that she might not escape unscathed.
While Mandrake isn’t necessarily billed as a ‘horror’, it certainly has the trappings of one. A dilapidated old house in the middle of the woods, people lurking in the shadows, witches and devil worship and a conspicuous absence of light. It’s certainly good at ramping up the tension, but there are times when the murkiness of the film – both in a visual and narrative sense – makes it genuinely difficult to parse what exactly is going on.
Davison is under no obligation to spoon feed the audience with exposition, but the film is a little too lean and could have perhaps benefited from a bit more narrative and character development. Coming in at just 84 minutes, the film speeds through its establishing sequences to get to the good stuff: the creepy goings on in the woods and an exploration of folklore and witchcraft. But while the film is pacy and never dips in momentum, it does mean a few narrative decisions end up a bit baffling. By simply including a few more scenes in which motivations can be established and the supporting cast can sink their teeth into something more substantial than a couple of lines and some menacing strolls through the woods, the film might have felt less rushed and confusing. The end credits of a film like Mandrake should arrive with the sweet relief of that chilling tension finally easing, or even the sharp shock of the scare finally occurring. Instead, there is a sense of befuddlement, of things having progressed so quickly that the conclusion feels underdeveloped and, unfortunately, even a bit unsatisfying.
Quibbles with the length and depth aside, the film is a really slick and confident debut from Davison. It’s precisely directed, with a clear visual style from cinematographer Conor Rotherham, and a really intriguing premise. It’s a little too dark at times; there are moments when it’s frustratingly difficult to parse out what is happening on screen because it’s so underlit, but there are some effectively creepy stylistic choices throughout. At its centre is an impressive performance from Mullins and a delightfully sinister, if frustratingly underdeveloped, turn from Crotty, and its titular mandrake roots are not dissimilar to those seen in the Harry Potter films, just with a bit more menace and disturbing folklore attached.
Mandrake is a film that is both frustrating and fascinating. It invites intrigue but keeps itself restrained. It’s so tightly edited, fast-paced and visually dark that it’s hard to establish what’s going on, and yet it feels like a really atmospheric and lived-in narrative. It’s a dichotomy of a film that encapsulates that moment before a scare where the tension is at its absolute peak, but never quite tips over that edge.
Mandrake premiered at Frightfest Glasgow 2022 on 12 March, 2022, and will be released on Shudder on November 3.