In the realm of horror filmmaking, things aren’t often as they seem. And I don’t mean that in a Lovecraftian “the chair in an empty room is actually your downfall” type way. I mean simply that sometimes the source of horror and anxiety in a film isn’t what it always appears to be. In Jaws and Alien, it really sucks that people are being killed by a shark and an alien. But what makes it truly horrific is the human indifference to the suffering of others in the name of profit and wealth. In The Exorcist, sure…a child being possessed by an ancient Sumerian demigod that spouts blasphemies and vomits pea soup upon hapless priests is frightening. But a parent seeing their child suffer in the grips of something they cannot comprehend is where the real horror comes in for most people.
Edoardo Vitaletti’s quasi-folk colonial horror film The Last Thing Mary Saw pulls off a similar hat trick. Couched as a folksy religious horror tale, Vitaletti’s film quickly descends into a rancid stew of paranoia, heartache, and despair that isn’t at all what it seems. The Last Thing Mary Saw opens with the titular Mary, blindfolded, and being interpreted by officials in the wake of her grandmother’s death. Said officials seem to believe that somehow the devil is involved, and the fact that Mary’s eyes are bleeding from underneath the handkerchief lends credence to their theory. However, as the film progresses, the lines between human and diabolical are blurred, and it soon becomes difficult to tell the difference between the two, or if indeed there is anything diabolical involved. We soon learn via flashback (the film is told mostly through such a method) that Mary has been receiving “education” from local clergymen at the behest of her parents who fear that her relationship with their maid Eleanor (played phenomenally by Isabella Fuhrman) is a little too intimate and not quite as godly and chaste as they’d like it to be. Coupled with the arrived of an enigmatic stranger (another chilling performance from Rory Culkin), the mood in the household soon becomes laden with mistrust and fear and things rapidly spiral out of control.
What’s commendable about this film is that it very easily could’ve devolved into a cookie cutter possession movie, but instead chose to tell a tale that is all too relatable for many people. It’s not a far stretch to see the way Mary’s parents treat her as an allegory for gay conversion therapy. Not only are their attempts at “curing” Mary laughably ineffective, but they’re also just driving Mary and Eleanor closer and making Mary despise them. Mary’s queerness may be an abomination in their eyes, but the audience is shown that the way they treat her is the real abomination in the film. What makes the film all the more heartbreaking is that Mary’s parents are not dyed in the wool hardcore true believers. At several points they are shown doubting the wisdom of the church officials and wondering if they’re doing the right thing and then in the face of such doubt, facing a choice between their faith and the well-being of their child plunging ahead on a course of action that they know is at the very least dangerous to their daughter and their maid. It’s this placing of faith upon a pedestal, the idea that what God decrees is right simply because he decrees it, that is the real horror of this film. Morality becomes something resting upon the word of a deity the characters have no direct knowledge of themselves but instead rely upon the word of middlemen for interpretation.
From a technical standpoint this film is phenomenal. The palate is washed out and gray, perfectly complimenting the bleak mood of the narrative. The cinematography highlights the stark landscape of rural 1800s New York, and the overall feel of the film is one of a grim Puritanical nightmare where boredom and monotony are the monsters. The performances are excellent, ranging from Isabella Fuhrman and Stefanie Scott as two star crossed lovers desperate to escape the oppressive household, they’re trapped in to Rory Culkin’s barely holding it together as “The Intruder” (IMDB’s description, not mine) to yet another fantastically ominous and sinister performance by Judith Anna Roberts as Mary’s late grandmother. All bring to their roles exactly what is needed to make us believe the story Vitaletti is telling us. There is a moment late in the film when Mary realizes the lethal consequences of a choice she makes, and Scott’s performance in portraying that realization is so subtle but intense and agonizing.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the titular last thing Mary saw would be some eldritch demonic horror, perhaps a crackly boned ghost with spooky marbly eyes. But Vitaletti instead gives us something far more tragic, something is worse than a dead eyed ghoul. For The Last Thing Mary Saw, the source of horror may or may not be supernatural, but it’s certainly something far more common than possessed children or killer sharks or chest bursting Tom Skerritt-murdering aliens. It’s the realization that familial bonds sometimes aren’t enough to withstand the pressure of religious and societal obligations, and the horrible understanding of how heartless the world truly can be.
THE LAST THING MARY SAW premieres on Shudder on January 20th, 2022