There is a pitch-black tone of thick, atmospheric horror hanging over Edoardo Vitaletti’s debut feature The Last Thing Mary Saw. The film moves at a deliberate pace, every scene a slow and seemingly unstoppable step towards tragedy, violence and terror of the most occult kind.
Set in New York in the bleak winter of 1843, the story is told in three ominously titled chapters by the titular Mary (Stefanie Scott), who we first meet after the story has already occurred. Blinded and blindfolded, with thick smears of blood strewn down her cheeks, she is interrogated by a nervous and frightened police constable (Daniel Pearce) as to what has happened in her beautiful farmhouse in the preceding days. What plays out on the surface is a story of forbidden love and the terrifying oppressiveness of religion; but lurking just below the surface and infecting every frame of the film is a vein of black-hearted occultism that corrupts and clings to Mary and her family, leading to a shocking and unsettling conclusion.
Stefanie Scott (Insidious: Chapter 3) gives a terrifically understated performance as Mary, the daughter of a wealthy family who has fallen in love with the family maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman). The relationship between the two women is sweetly played out, their desire and affection for one another an affront to the family’s truly depressing Christian sensibilities. Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan, The Hunger Games) is excellent in the role of the defiant maid who will do anything for her love. When Eleanor comes into possession of a small book that seems to be full of prophetic tales, a book that may be full to the brim with dark power, the plan she and Mary put into action seems doomed to end in heartbreak.
Judith Roberts (Eraserhead, You Were Never Really Here) plays the terrifying matriarch of the family; though old and frail, she appears to tower over the family like some terrible titan, her iron and unforgiving will carried out by her children. Roberts is a frightening presence throughout the film; her insistence on the two lovers being ‘corrected’ by being forced to kneel on grains of rice is horribly period accurate, her indifference to their plight displaying a cold heart full of malice. And as Mary’s tale edges towards its conclusion, Roberts provides some shocking chills that will be burned into the memory of all who see.
The rest of the cast, though proficient in their roles, get little time to make too much of an impact; P.J Sosko makes for a likeable if complicated figure as the guard of the grounds, sympathetic to the girls plight so long as they can keep feeding him stolen bread; and Michael Laurence as Mary’s father gives a good account of himself as a man trapped between doing what is right for his daughter and obeying the will of God (or in this case, Robert’s horrific matriarch).
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The Last Thing That Mary Saw creates an atmosphere that few modern horrors seem able to. Much of the film plays out by candlelight, the flickering flame illuminating only what is in front of us and shrouding the rest of the frame in darkness. There is a nightmarish quality about the film, the way the story moves through its gears in a slow and methodical fashion that seems to be sleepwalking our characters towards a tragedy as grisly as it is inevitable.
Rory Culkin (Signs, Scream 4) arrives at the farmhouse around the movie’s mid-point as a mysterious visitor. His face scarred badly from the complications a difficult birth, Culkin delivers a haunting monologue about the history of his existence, further adding to the film’s stellar performances. His unnerving delivery adds a further layer of unease to proceedings, a dangerous and more ‘earthly’ foe which only adds to the film’s increasingly off kilter feel and tone.
Director Edoardo Vitaletti’s shoots the film in gorgeous shadows and oppressive close-ups, giving each scene the time it needs to breathe. Having also written the story for the film, Vitaletti knows just where to draw the audiences attention in moments of high tension, and delivers a movie that worms its way into your head as you wait for the hammer to fall. There will be understandable comparisons to Robert Eggers’ 2016 masterpiece The Witch, and while the tone and themes of The Last Thing Mary Saw may marry up (oppressive religion, fear of the unknown) I would argue that Vitaletti’s film is much more accessible. While still complex and slow-burning, The Last Thing Mary Saw feels more welcoming to the average cinema goer and provides its chills accordingly. Though I suspect that, much like Eggers’ work, the film’s ending will spark debate among the audience.
The score of the film is minimal and unintrusive, building to more sombre and fearful tones to match the darkening of the tale. The soft humming that plays over some of the final scenes of the film enough to raise goosebumps in the flesh as we wait for the horrific reveals that are to come.
While the film is adept at crafting moments of quiet, tension filled dread (the opening scene of the constable asking Mary to recite the Lord’s Prayer while two terrified officers shakily raise their rifles to the tiny, unarmed girl on her knees before them is a brilliantly weird image) it also proves itself adapt at moments of blood and gore which arise shockingly if infrequently.
The Last Thing Mary Saw is a terrifying ordeal; thick with atmosphere and dread, the film holds the viewer’s attention as it peels back layer after layer of Mary’s ordeal with a blackened glee. Surrounded by a terrific cast full of strong performances, Vitaletti has announced himself as a name to be watched with his story of forbidden love and malignant malice.
Seek out The Last Thing Mary Saw at FrightFest on 28 August if you are in attendance, you won’t be disappointed. Thankfully it has an afternoon screening, as you may find yourself longing for the sun before the final dark frame of the film is complete.
By: Hugh McStay