By: Brendan Graham
Nineteenth-century-set films have seen quite the renaissance in the horror genre, and our fascination with a time that saw such atrocities committed against women continues as well. I’m talking, of course, about the time of witch hunts and hysteria, neighbor turning on neighbor, and using unspeakable methods of pain and punishment to elicit confessions that bare no truth. We’ve seen this before in films like The Witch or more recently, the final part of the Fear Street trilogy. THE LAST THING MARY SAW continues this trend, but doesn’t do much to elevate or change the recipe - instead, it finds ways to be unique, despite being familiar, but mostly to mixed results.
We are first introduced to Mary (Stefanie Scott) as she kneels before a group of men accusing her of witchcraft, blindfolded, with blood dripping from her eyes, underneath the fabric. The story moves ahead to a cold, New York state winter in 1843, on a rural family estate. Mary and housemaid Eleanor (Orphan’s Isabelle Fuhrman) are in love, but have to hide their attempts at intimacy from the judgmental eyes of her religious family - headed by the slender and quite terrifying Matriarch (Mary Shaw herself, Judith Roberts).
Living with her family is cruel and oppressive, as our lovers keep getting caught. So Eleanor continues to be tortured by being forced to kneel on rice, and Mary has to watch. As Mary and Eleanor continue to find inventive ways to embrace in secret, they begin to become more and more desperate to be together. Desperation leads to temptation, thus creating a chain reaction of events that may lead the family to its undoing.
Writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti’s first feature film has a lot working for it. The atmosphere is exquisitely bleak; with the cold winter backdrop of snow mixing well with the muted tones of the household. The film looks great, lighting and use of shadows creating the appropriate mood as events get more disturbing. The sound design of the film is equally impressive, from the creaking of the floorboards to that ominous humming heard throughout the house. The moments of well-timed silence add quite a bit of tension, and those moments pay off quite well. There are a few genuinely unsettling sequences that will linger with you after the credits roll.
Scott is a strong lead, but lacks the level of depth that Fuhrman brings to Eleanor, whose later lack of dialogue is quite unfortunate, but came with the character. The real star of the show is Roberts’ portrayal of the Matriarch, probably one of the creepier performances I’ve seen in quite a long time. Other notable cast members include Rory Culkin and Michael Laurence, two of the stronger secondary characters in the film. Sadly, a lot of the performances are fairly forgettable.
At about 89 minutes in length, THE LAST THING MARY SAW takes its time (sometimes too long) unveiling the darkness ahead. Viewers who are not a fan of slow-burn horror will struggle through the first third of the film, where the intrigue is not quite as gripping as it should be. The film is presented in a chapter format, which will make more sense when you watch the film. Each chapter has a bit of story for Mary to read aloud, and it’s then that the upcoming events become a little too predictable at times, if you really pay attention. Viewers should also be aware that there is a scene of sexual assault that is very uncomfortable.
Overall, THE LAST THING MARY SAW struggles in pacing, and stumbles narratively, but finds its footing with solid performances by the main cast, impressive visuals and sound design, and the overall atmosphere of oppression and pain. It hardly brings anything new to the table, but provides enough to thrill audiences that are willing to stick it out to the end.
THE LAST THING MARY SAW is streaming on Shudder.