In Lynne Davison’s Northern Irish dark drama Mandrake, probation officer Cathy Madden (Deirdre Mullins) takes on the case of witchy murderess ‘Bloody Mary’ Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), who has just come out of jail after a long stretch and has returned to a grim farm in a community that hasn’t forgotten what she did – though myths have also built up around why she did it.
When the story starts, Cathy is already in a bad place – her cop ex-husband (Paul Kennedy) is remarried to a happily pregnant non-neurotic new wife (Roisin Gallagher) who her son Luke (Jude Hill, from Belfast) is starting to call ‘mummy’ … and one of her clients thinks he loves her, while the rest of the lowlifes she has to deal with treat her vilely. She volunteers for the gig no one else wants – dealing with still-notorious ‘Bloody Mary’, which draws her into a decades-old ritual that it still going on as a hulking, horn-masked figure (Seamus O’Hara) continues the magical murder spree and Mary works up alchemical trickery with a wood-baby dug out of mandrake roots.
Social issues and personal drama are displaced by folk horror when new corpses turn up in the woods and unresolved elements of the original crimes resurface, binding the two women together in a gruesome ritual. We’ve perhaps had a few too many films with rural folk sporting animal skull masks lately, but this casts a particularly creepy spell; in the canon of woodland horrors, it evokes Nigel Kneale’s TV play ‘Murrain’ as a well-intentioned, if not naïve rationalist tries to stand between a witchlike outcast and a community only too eager to take up torches in a vigilante mob. Splendidly acted, with Crotty especially chilling as a malevolent and possibly magical presence, this treads a well-worn path into deep dark forests but conceals nasty traps in the wild undergrowth. A few shock moments jar the nerves, but it’s the atmosphere of damp, earthy dread that’ll stick with you. Scripted by Matt Harvey, who has worked his way up from mockbuster (Comet Impact) through direct-to-non-theatrical sequel (the decent Hard Target 2) to an original. Davison has done assistant camera work on Freakdog, Ghost Machine and Game of Thrones and made quite a few shorts.