Fantasia presents The Last Thing Mary Saw; book tickets here.
To fully understand the puritanical new world of Edoardo Vitaletti’s atmospheric religious horror, we need to take a trip back to England around 1650. Here, Charles I of England lies rotting in a grave, his head unceremoniously detached from his body following the English Civil War. The country held firmly in the grip of a Lord Protector named Oliver Cromwell. But, Cromwell was not merely interested in early concepts of democracy; he was also hell-bent on religious change and reformation. Here, Cromwell’s leadership merged limited political freedom with social and religious control.
However, by 1657 Cromwell’s grip was weakening, with brave new voices defying his puritanical beliefs as many called for a return to monarchy, and by 1658 Cromwell was dead, allowing this air of change to build further. This period in time was brilliantly explored in Thomas Clay’s exceptional Fanny Lye Deliver’d. In many ways, Edoardo Vitaletti’s new film The Last Thing Mary Saw feels like a continuation of Clay’s story and themes. After all, while England slowly changed, many puritans boarded ships in Plymouth, keen to reestablish puritanism in the new world. Here, many successfully built religious communities on the East coast of the United States, including Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Haven. The puritanism of Cromwells England, reborn in small, insular communities where escape was not an option.
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These communities would thrive right up to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, with their ideologies living on much longer. And it is within these years of isolation that The Last Thing Mary Saw begins. The year is 1843, the place rural New York. Here, we find Mary (Stefanie Scott) sitting quietly, her face covered in dried blood. A blindfold covering the holes where her eyes once sat; the candlelit room she inhabits, an interrogation chamber as two law enforcers probe the night’s events. But, what tragedy led to Mary’s predicament?
As Mary recounts her story, we learn of her puritanical family led by a stone-faced matriarch (Judith Roberts). The families life, bound to a set of religious rules nobody dare break from the youngest to the oldest in the extended family circle. However, these rules will not stop Mary’s forbidden love for the housemaid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman). Nor Eleanor’s reciprocal love of Mary. But, here, there is no easy path, with Mary’s story, one of unconditional love, torment and religious control. The horrors of the events to come, born from a need to escape, a desire to love, and a mysterious stranger’s arrival (Rory Culkin).
Unlike many pre-American Civil War horrors, The Last Thing Mary Saw never languishes in the tried and tested witch hunts of many of its contemporaries, including the recent Fear Street. Instead, Vitaletti focuses on the power of religion in maintaining control. Its tight grip, allowing few options for escape for either Mary or Eleanor. Its strength, rooted in inequality, social class, oppression and position. Just like Thomas Clay, Vitaletti opts to focus on the human repercussions of puritanical control, with Mary and Eleanor forced to consider escape routes they know are embedded in darkness. Their final solution, a toxic mix of love, revenge and desperation.
However, this very human horror also has folk themes running through its veins, from the power of literature as a catalyst for change to ancient curses. And it is here where Vitaletti’s screenplay stumbles; his folk horror, while visually stunning, never finds the space to define its narrative place amongst the human terror. However, this at no point distracts from the sense of foreboding tragedy that permeates his film—every scene laced with tension, every conversation a catalyst for possible violence. Here, a sense of unease surrounds every minute of the runtime; the audience, never sure of the new horrors that may lie around each dark corner.
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The Last Thing Mary Saw owes much of its success to the understated central performances of Scott and Furhman. Their romance, believable, gentle and sincere, a faint ray of hope in an otherwise dark room of no escape. Meanwhile, Roberts controlling matriarch is chilling, her power held in a single glare or a short yet cutting sentence. However, I also have to mention the superb if all too brief appearance of Rory Culkin. His chilling yet calm intruder remaining lodged in the memory long after the credits have rolled. But, The Last Thing Mary Saw also excels in its design, cinematography, score and sound. The result of which is a claustrophobic and oppressive prison of human emotions and desires.
READ MORE: FANNY LYE DELIVER’D
For some, The Last Thing Mary Saw will lack the visual horror they desire, while others will gobble up its tension like a delicious three-course meal. And while it may not quite reach the heights of Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d or the sumptuously complex The Righteous, Vitaletti’s directorial debut is deeply impressive. His homage to folk horror past and present also reflecting themes of religious control in love and sexuality that sadly still ring true.
For me, this is where Vitaletti’s film finds its voice as the past meets the present in exploring the interface between sexuality, religion and belief. The mistakes of the past still echoing in the present through practices such as conversion therapy. And while the escape door has become more easily defined and less dangerous for many individuals, many still find themselves caught in the net of fundamentalism. And while The Last Thing Mary Saw may take us back to 1843, its story is also rooted firmly in the present, and maybe that’s where the true horror of Vitaletti’s film lies.