There have been plenty of horror films set in the Old West and the Old South, as well as eras of religious inquisition in the Old World. “The Last Thing Mary Saw” goes where relatively few have gone before, however, by taking place in the still-new United States’ “civilized” rural East, where an industrial age had yet to penetrate and mores remained none too distant from the earliest European settlers’ harsh Puritanism.
Most obviously comparable would be 2015’s sleeper hit “The Witch,” though this first feature by writer-director Edoardo Vitaletti is not as vivid in atmospheric or suspense terms. Still, it’s similarly distinguished by a strong sense of a particular cultural epoch’s comingled faith, fear and oppression, even if “Mary” is set more than 200 years later. Perhaps more rewarding in the end as straight, downbeat period drama than as an occult thriller, it was acquired by genre platform Shudder just before world premiering at Fantasia, with a multinational streaming launch planned for early next year.
An opening quote from John Calvin sets the stern tenor as we meet the titular figure (Stefanie Scott from “Insidious 3”), eyes bleeding behind a blindfold, being interrogated by a constable (Daniel Pearce) in Long Island hamlet Southold’s gaolhouse in 1843. She is accused of murder, witchery, or both, and his terrified deputies train shotguns at the teen despite her evident helplessness.
She relates what led to this pass in three successive central-narrative chapters, the first entitled “The Temple of Earthly Desires.” Apparently a book of provocative woodcut illustrations and unknown text had been introduced to her household, somehow provoking Mary to commence an ill-concealed carnal affair with the family’s equally youthful maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman from “Orphan”).
Mary’s fearful parents (Carolyn McCormick and Michael Laurence) turn to the clan’s fearsome matriarch (Judith Roberts) for “intervention,” which results in a cruel regime of punitive “corrections” for the two young women. Its aim seems less penitential than sadistic, with potentially crippling effects familiar to the estate’s armed guard (P.J. Sosko), who couldn’t leave his post if he tried.
Past the half-hour mark, we discover that there is indeed some supernatural deviltry going on here — but the accused are not the guilty parties. Soon after, the matriarch is found dead in bed. Then a heavily cloaked stranger (Rory Culkin) arrives, delivering poultry ostensibly because the family’s own livestock have suddenly died. His brief but sinister appearance further unsettles an abode whose residents are about to experience an even more cataclysmic disruption.
“The Last Thing Mary Saw” is perhaps too sparing with its occult aspects, which intrigue more than they successfully alarm; we never really do find out just what that “evil” book is capable of, or where it came from. Vitaletti’s storytelling, and ability to drum up tension or scares, is less potent here than his attention to evoking a general climate of close-minded religious hypocrisy. If Mary feels a little too modern in her prescient forthrightness of desire and independent thought, the other figures persuasively inhabit a narrow world of superstition and social hierarchies little altered since “The Witch’s” colonial days two centuries before. Roberts, still best known for her role in “Eraserhead” despite notable recent ones in “You Were Never Really Here” and “Orange Is the New Black,” is duly formidable as the self-appointed executor of God’s wrath — or, perhaps, some entity yea worse.
There’s conviction and a certain period veracity not just to the well-chosen cast’s contributions, but those of the design team. The soft candlelit look of DP David Kruta’s imagery casts a claustrophobic spell abetted by Charles Robinson’s production design and Sofija Mesicek’s costumes. The chamber score by Keegan Dewitt is also just right.
Its anti-nostalgic mood of early American isolation and repression recalling Andrew Repasky McElhinney’s 2000 “A Chronicle of Corpses,” “The Last Thing Mary Saw” is similarly effective as a 19th-century New England art-house Gothic. It’s somewhat less satisfying as horror melodrama, given the somewhat convoluted narrative logic and limited payoff. Still, Vitaletti merits admiration for a debut feature whose ambitions are off the usual beaten track.
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