Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Mandrake, on Shudder

The notorious ritualistic murderer Mary Laidlaw has just been released on parole, because why would you want to keep someone like that in prison, right? Yet, the “narrowminded” villagers are still uneasy having her back in her old pagan cottage. Cathy Madden is a tough but fair parole officer, who will try to handle Laidlaw’s case without prejudice. However, she will come to agree pitchforks and torches might be the best way of dealing with her in Lynne Davison’s Mandrake, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Although Madden’s boss is somewhat sympathetic to Laidlaw, given her late husband’s alleged abuse, she finds the convicted murderer downright spooky, because she is. Laidlaw also seems to know things about Madden and her copper ex-husband, Jason Reid that she has no business knowing.

Still, Madden tries to be professional, even though the disappearance of two young girls in the woods around Laidlaw’s property is cause for concern, especially since it happened the day after she was released. In reasonably short order, Madden starts to suspect Laidlaw is not fully rehabilitated after all. In fact, she could be the alleged witch’s next victim.

Davison and screenwriter Matt Harvey try to combine procedural and folk horror elements in interesting ways, but the former are rather more compelling than the latter. The problem is some of
Rosemary’s Baby imagery is a bit too murky to fully follow. However, the general atmosphere of pagan evil is definitely eerie. Seriously, do not go into those woods.

Madden’s work as a parole officer (or whatever they call it in the UK) is rarely seen in horror and it is usually presented in much the same way in gangster movies (usually a slimy middle-aged dude on the take), so it is interesting to see a fresh horror perspective in
Mandrake. (My aunt was a parole officer and you wouldn’t have wanted to mess with her.) Madden isn’t that tough, but she is still quite formidable and Deirdre Mullins humanizes her nicely, earning sympathy and understanding for her human flaws.

Likewise, Paul Kennedy is credibly down-to-earth as Reid. Again, their relationship is smartly written. Instead of fighting like cats-and-dogs, they generally try to get along and make the best of things, even though they still frustrate each other at times. Plus, Derbhle Crotty is appropriately creepy as Laidlaw, which is obviously a key part of the film.

Mandrake might have been even more effective if it had shown a little less of the folky supernatural business and implied a little more. Nevertheless, it represents some nicely atmospheric, character-driven horror. Recommended for folk horror fans, Mandrake starts streaming tomorrow (11/10) on Shudder.