Mandrake – Review
A probation officer, Cathy Madden, is tasked with rehabilitating a notorious killer named 'Bloody' Mary Laidlaw back into society following a two-decade sentence.
It’s 2023 and a brand new year of horror movie reviews here at Knockout Horror. I hope you all had a fun Christmas and holiday season. What better way to kick off the new year than with a gloomy horror from Northern Ireland?
Today we are taking a look at genre mashing crime drama, come folk horror, Mandrake. Representing the feature length directional debut for Lynne Davison. Mandrake is slow paced, dark, and fairly bleeding miserable. Somewhat in keeping with many of its fellow UK horror compatriots. This is a brooding and glacial movie that may not be for everyone. It’s receiving some promotion from Shudder at the moment. So, why not take a look.
Mandrake Ending Explained
Whoa is this ever a vague movie. If you have found this review by searching for Mandrake Ending Explained then you are in luck. We have an Ending Explained section here at Knockout Horror. It’s still pretty fresh but I will be adding to it constantly this year.
Mandrake’s ending is exactly what this section was made for. Simply click the link to check out my explanation for the events of Mandrake. Keep in mind, these articles are subjective. I do my best to tell you what is going on from my perspective. Naturally, the articles are full of spoilers so make sure you have watched the film before reading.
Mandrake – Synopsis
Shudder Original Mandrake is an atmospheric horror movie set in Northern Ireland, UK. It follows the story of probation officer Cathy Madden (Deirdre Mullins). She is assigned to help with the social reintegration of Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty). Mary, derogatorily known as Bloody Mary by the locals, is a convicted serial killer. It’s Cathy’s job to tag her and make sure she is keeping up with her appointments.
Naturally the locals are a little sceptical. They have all heard the stories of Bloody Mary. Many grew up with the tales of what she did and believe her to be evil. Cathy, on the other hand, believes in people being deserving of redemption. It is no surprise that when a pair of local children go missing, Mary is an immediate suspect. It’s up to Cathy and the local police force to find out what happened.
Gloomy UK Horror
The UK seems to have a bit of a knack for putting out gloomy horror. It feels as though filmmakers over here have really been leaning into that lately. I am sure some would argue that Mandrake is actually an Irish movie. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the film was made in Northern Ireland by Village Films. Village Films are a production company based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For those of you who are unaware of the somewhat complex nature of the British Isles. Northern Ireland is a Country/Province/Region that is part of the United Kingdom. The extremely tenuous nature of Irish history is a discussion for another website. Suffice it to say that, technically, this is a movie from the UK and it very much feels like one.
If you have grown a little tired of the almost brutally realistic, slow paced, style of British horror. You will probably struggle to find anything to enjoy here. Mandrake is a grey and sullen film with little in the way of cheer. It also moves at a laboured pace. There is no desire to shock the viewer with jump scares. This is the wrong place to look for action or thrills. Director Lynne Davison aims to get inside your head and really unsettle you. Creepy imagery and a solid commitment to mood setting are the key factors at play here. This is a type of horror that the UK has become accustomed to producing. Mandrake is no exception.
Very Slow Paced
This type of horror is always divisive. Some will love the slow paced, thoughtful, approach. Others will absolutely hate it and see it as being the antithesis of horror. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, Mandrake may not be for everyone. If you like these types of films, read on. If you don’t, you aren’t likely to find much to enjoy here. I feel that it is always important to point this out. Many people have no interest in these slow burn films and will check out immediately.
It would almost be apt to describe Mandrake as something of a horror adjacent. The crime and drama element play a central role. While horror themes are present, they really don’t feel like the main focus. This is somewhat common with folk horror, as a whole. Much like The Wicker Man, a crime has been committed. Children are missing and our protagonist needs to solve the mystery. The underlying horror themes act as a backdrop to a story that has potential but is tremendously lacking. The problem here, for me at least, is how predictable said story is.
A Fairly Unremarkable Story
Mandrake really doesn’t try to do anything different. Its story is predictable and completely by the numbers. There are no twists and turns and very little to sink your teeth into. You will be begging for some nuance to the story. It will offer a hint before going right back to being entirely obvious. It’s a little bit frustrating to be honest. There are no surprises. This leads to an 85 minute movie feeling much longer than it is. It plods along at a middling pace and will likely lose the attention of some viewers along the way.
I feel as though there is the seed of a decent horror tale here. The character of Bloody Mary likely has a fascinating back story but it is never expanded on. Indeed, her current intentions are barely expanded on. There is clearly plenty that is supposed to be picked up on between the lines. That really isn’t good enough, though. Viewers don’t want to have to fumble around in the dark just to find where the movie is supposed to be going.
A Lacklustre Script
Matt Harvey’s inconsistent script really doesn’t do Mandrake any favours. Protracted silences between characters lead to some truly awkward scenes. One, in particular, sees Mary watch Cathy as she drinks a cup of water. Nothing is said as she slowly finishes the drink. A similar scene follows later on as a character smokes a cigarette. I understand the reason for the silence but it feels horribly out of place. Harvey’s inability to expand on character’s motives leaves the story feeling lacking.
There are a number of wasted interactions throughout. These could have better served as opportunities for exposition. I am sure most people want to know more about the characters. This never seems to happen and, consequently, they feel woefully two dimensional. At the very least we need to know more about Mary. We needed to know more about her crimes and why she is back in the town said crimes were committed. A little more explanation about her beliefs and rituals would have helped the story. As it stands, many people are going to be left confused and disappointed.
Gorgeous Looking and Unsettling
Focusing on some of the positives. The visuals here are, for the most part, fantastic. This is a gorgeous looking picture that captures rural Northern Ireland beautifully. Some of the shots don’t work. They can feel a little redundant. For the most part, however, this is a great looking film. The dreariness may not be for everyone but it works well given the theme. It has to be said, however, that the movie is way too dark. I had to turn up my backlight, it is just so dull. Indoor scenes are particularly susceptible to this.
There is a decent amount of unsettling imagery. Some of it doesn’t work and some of it looks pretty ridiculous. For the most part, however, it is effective and impactful. Taking cues from movies such as The Witch. Mandrake doesn’t slap you around the face with its scares. They are subtle and unnerving, very fitting for a gloomy folk horror. There is a decent amount of tension and atmosphere here. The use of children as victims is always an effective way to get people invested. The mystery unravels slowly but is fairly engaging. There is the blueprint for a fascinating story here, it just never really manages to play out.
Acting is, for the most part, really good. While the supporting cast is very consistent, the two leads are of particular note. Deirdre Mullins presents a complex character unlike your typical horror movie mother. Cathy is devoted to her work and has a strained relationship with her son. Mullins captures the conflicted nature of the character perfectly.
Derbhle Crotty as Mary is generally great. The character can feel a little over the top at times. Her sinister smiles and bizarre manner of speaking are noteworthy. They make you wonder how she was ever released from prison in the first place. I blame this more on direction and scripting than Crotty. She just didn’t have a tremendous amount to work with. What she does have to work with she does a great job with. She is genuinely creepy and carries the horror element of the film.
A Tough Recommend
Mandrake, ultimately, is a difficult movie to recommend. It is slow paced and not for everyone. If there was just a little more attention given to the story, this could have been fantastic. Mandrake is never going to be the type of movie that all horror fans will love. Slow burn horror is always divisive. As a slow burn horror, however, it does a lot well.
It is dark and brooding with some moments of fantastic tension. Crotty’s performance is bound to please fans of subtle horror, as well. She is tremendously creepy. This is a good looking picture with a few things to recommend. I just feel that the story is too lacking in development to make it a must recommend. On top of that, the script does it no favours. This is without mentioning the subpar ending. It is worth a watch but should definitely be avoided by people who dislike slow burn horror.
Is it a Knockout?
Mandrake is a slow moving folk horror movie from Northern Ireland. A difficult movie to recommend, its glacial pace and somewhat vague story will not be for everyone. An inconsistent script and a lack of plot development really hampers the flow. Fantastic performances from the two leads and some unsettling imagery make the movie worth a watch. Fans of slow burn horror may find a lot to like. If you prefer fast paced movies, this will not be for you. For anyone else who happens to have a Shudder subscription, why not check it out?