Mandrake (2022)

Mandrake had its world première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2022

Lynne Davison’s debut feature Mandrake begins in the dark, as a man frantically digs with his bare hands into the thick mud. An unearthly shrieking is heard, and his body goes limp – and is then dragged off into the trees by the chain around his neck. 

This is an arresting, uncanny opening, its impressionistic images promising something primal and preternatural – which contrasts with the social realism of the next scene, as probation officer Cathy Madden (Deirdre Mullins) picks up one of her errant wards, and handles herself professionally in a sticky situation. Cathy is very good at what she does – which is why she volunteers to take on a case that no one else wants to touch. Her new client, ‘Bloody’ Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), has only just been released from prison. For she was jailed in 1991 for killing her husband with an axe, after he had hanged her lover and beaten and burnt her, leaving her for dead. Amid persistent rumours of an occult aspect to the double death, local children still refer to Mary as a ‘witch’ – and even some of the probation services and police are spooked by her. Although usually no-nonsense, Cathy too is unnerved by the intensity of this lame, burn-scarred middle-aged woman – although that does not stop her trying to support Mary in her rehabilitation to life out of prison and back in her spartan woodland home. 

In American cinema, where the history of the Salem witch trials casts a long shadow, ‘witches’ are often ordinary women who have become scapegoated for the hypocrisies and misogynistic viciousness of their puritanical community. Yet while Mandrake, set in Northern Ireland rather than the United States, flirts with the idea of Mary being a victim of abuse, and presents a local lynch mob baying for her blood, it also quickly makes it clear that Mary does indeed engage in arcane rituals, display clairvoyant powers, concoct strange herbal potions, and exercise a malign influence over others. Surrounded by pagan charms, she does not seem to be a witch of the merely metaphorical variety – and with two local children missing and last seen near her property, tensions are mounting, and a confrontation with the locals and with Cathy’s ex-husband the police sergeant Jason Reid (Paul Kennedy) appears inevitable. 

Yet even as Mary is made to look ever more sinister and malevolent, Mandrake keeps drawing parallels between her and Cathy. Both, after all, are loving mothers separated from their ailing sons: Mary’s newborn Thomas was taken from her while in prison and put into a home, while Cathy’s son Luke (Jude Hill), with his crippling respiratory ailments, is now looked after by Jason’s new – and newly pregnant – wife Grace (Roisin Gallagher), whom the little boy has, to Cathy’s chagrin, started calling ‘Mummy’. Mary hopes to use her wiccan skills – and the mystical earthborn mandrake buried in the ground – to cure herself and Thomas (Seamus O’Hara) of their various infirmities, even if it means callously harming others to get what she wants. As Cathy experiences at first hand Mary’s perverse powers of healing, an idea is planted within her, a selfish notion – in this otherwise selfless, sympathetic woman – as to how she might both be reconciled to her son and perhaps even see him relieved of his illness. 

Accordingly Davison’s moody folk horror, written by Matt Harvey, dramatises the outer limits – and sacrifices – of a maternal love which unites Mary and Cathy in destructive witchery. By the end, we can see that despite their differences in class and age, and despite their place on opposite sides of the criminal divide, the instincts that these two women share bind them together to the primordial mud and ooze of that greatest mother, earth, where savagery is the natural order. 

Strap: Lynne Davison’s feature debut merges social realism with folk horror to tell a witchy story of maternal extremes.

© Anton Bitel