The witchtrials were never really about broomsticks and pointy hats, magical powers or turning people into frogs, and Lynne Davison’s grisly feature debut understands this far more than most witch-centric horrors. Set in small town Northern Ireland, it takes on a fair amount of the tried-and-tested scenery, from the deep, dark woods, to the local angry mob, but Davison and screenwriter Matt Harvey’s characters are that little bit more nuanced, making for a wicked wiccan nightmare with some much needed fire at its centre.

 Case in point, Mandrake’s lead, easily-irritated parole office Cathy (Deidre Mullins), a wobbly recent-divorcee who dives head first into her no-nonsense work rehabilitating ex-convicts, often missing weekends with her estranged son (Belfast’s Jude Hill) in the process. Cathy finds she’s well and truly met her match though, when she rubs up against her latest case, local legend Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty), a literal axe murderer who may (or may not) be a witch. And when local children start to go missing near ‘Bloody’ Mary’s farmhouse, pressures mount, with the nearby townsfolk readying their pitchforks, putting Cathy in an impossible situation.

Mandrake (FrightFest Glasgow) (Blue Finch Film Releasing) (01)It’s a cleverly-strung modern update of the old-school witch trials, and Davison and editor Sean Keeley make a terrific decision early-on to lead with the performances. Crotty is a particularly tough nut to crack, and the film’s first act is full of superbly sticky back-and-forths around her potential innocence. So much of the tension is drawn from decisions she makes off the page too, snatching control from Mullins’ Cathy at every opportunity creating a really fascinating two-hander.

 One which sadly, doesn’t last too long, though. Once Harvey’s script gets going, it rarely slows down to savour these sorts of moments again, with definitive reveals coming thick and fast. Davison snatches little character moments here and there, but Mandrake really does play its hand incredibly early, taking a Ben Wheatley-esque left-turn straight into hardcore folk horror and full-on nastiness, from which there’s really no way back.

 That’s not to say that once we’re in that world, it’s not enjoyable. Cinematographer Conor Rotherman shoots the gnarly wooded occult stuff beautifully in a muddy, silvery haze; Mullins switches gears but holds on to what makes her Cathy prickly and exciting; and Davison really doesn’t hold back when it comes to the gory bits. Mandrake goes hard where it needs to go hard, it’s just a crying shame it had to lose that central tension in order to get there.

 For die-hard witch fans and genre devotees, this ticks all the boxes for sure, and marks Davison as a deft hand at delivering grim, grisly, earthy horror with punchy characters. There’s definitely room for so much more here though, and with a cast as switched-on as this, it feels like a wasted opportunity to not milk this for more of that thunderous tension the first act manages.