The Irish do the gloom thing quite well. Poets and painters, novelists and filmmakers, they get their greys right and the grim earth tones of fall and can all but consume any notion of cheer and the Irish spring long past, or the one you hope is coming.
“Mandrake” is a moody little Northern Irish tale of spooky goings on out in th’bog, children disappearing and the “witch” the locals are convinced is behind it all, seeing as how she just moved back after serving time for killing her abusive husband.
“Bloody Mary” they call her. Not terribly original, and it’d confuse viewers if they’d titled the film this.
Deirdre Mullins plays Cathy, a divorced and dedicated probation officer who tries to keep her charges on the straight and narrow, and can fight them off when they aren’t. But this Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty) woman she’s taken on would give Freddy Krueger the creeps.
She’s blowsy and bluff and sexual, 50something and walking with a cane. When Cathy attaches an ankle monitor on her after she’s returned to the half-ruined home where she nearly died, and where she killed the man who almost killed her, the probation officer can’t help but notice scars.
Mary acts as if she knows Cathy, talks about her ex-husband, the cop Jason (Paul Kennedy), mentions their marriages troubles and even a possible cause of them. She knows.
Mary’s all about herbs and the roots of the forest, teas and potions and whatnot. And don’t get her started about mandrake.
When a couple of local kids, smart-alecks who “want to see the witch,” disappear from the woods near Mary’s place, the locals want to lynch her. Cathy and Jason intervene.
“This town thinks she’s the f—–g devil!”
But is she?
Lynne Davison’s debut feature is properly creepy and mysterious, with folk horror stick figures and even a shrubby looking beast glimpsed in the shadows, wandering the forest. That’s true all through the first act and into the second.
It’s when things head into hostage-taking/rituals and the like that the spell is broken. The best mysteries are the ones left only half-explained.
But there are kids and a woman imperiled, primitive goings on in the woods and lots of fiddling about with roots that seem kind of human when you wash and cut into them.
And a lynch mob delayed can be justice denied. Or murderous conclusions leapt to by groupthink. It’s the gloom that gets in their Irish souls and won’t let go.
Rating: unrated, bloody violence, nudity, profanity, inuendo
Cast: Deirdre Mullins, Derbhle Crotty, Paul Kennedy, Seamus O’Hara and Jude Hill
Credits: Directed by Lynne Davison, scripted by Matt Harvey. A Shudder release.
Running time: 1:25