GLOOM OF YOUTH
The Last Thing Mary Saw (15)
Director: Edoardo Vitaletti
Screenplay: Edoardo Vitaletti
Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Stefanie Scott, Daniel Pearce
Review: RJ Bland
Period horror is an ever growing corner in the genre library. It's easy to see why. Setting a film pre WW2 gives film makers a valid reason for not having to deal with the restrictions that modern technology can throw up for a start. There is also a certain sense of mystery and repression. Let's face it, although things aren't perfect right now, if you go back one or two hundred years or so you'll find a whole host of societal and cultural factors that would make any horror feature potentially that much more grim. And then there is the effect that the separation of time can have on the viewer. It might be easier to suspend your disbelief when what you are watching feels like it is set in a time and place that you aren't familiar with anyway. In the early noughties we had a handful of period horror features (the most notable being Alejandro Amenabar's The Others in 2001) but it wasn't until 2012's adaptation of The Woman in Black that the trend really kicked in. The film made a tonne of cash at the box office and showed that horror and history could be fine bedfellows. This reached new heights with Robert Egger's The VVitch in 2015 and since then we've had films like The Wind, Gwen and The Wasteland to provide some yesteryear chills. Edoardo Vitaletti's intriguingly titled The Last Thing Mary Saw is the latest film to get in on the act.
Set in dreary rural New York in the 1840s, the action begins with a blindfolded (and presumed blind) young woman called Mary (Stefanie Scott) being interrogated about the death of a family member. She's asked to recite the lord's prayer (at gunpoint) and having passed this test, begins to recount the tragic series of events that led to her current predicament. In the not too distant past, Mary is in the midst of a love affair with a housemaid called Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman). However her puritanical elders are less than happy, especially the unsettling matriarch of the family (Judith Roberts). A plan is hatched to 'correct' the pair of them, before moving Eleanor to another household. Part of said correction involves making them recite bible verses for hours whilst kneeling bare-legged on rice. And we're not talking fluffy cooked jasmine rice. No, this is hard, uncooked rice. Eleanor and Mary want nothing more to escape this repressive hell and they begin to concoct a plan to do just that...
The Last Thing Mary Saw premiered at last year's Frightfest and was considered to be one of the better films of the festival. Indeed, if the slow, creeping subtle dread of films like The Witch and Sator are your vibe then chances are you will find yourself quite immersed in this claustrophobic, candlelit chamber piece. For others though, the lack of direct horror will leave them frustrated at the wasted potential of the storyline and setting. Most, ourselves included, will feel both of these things.
Director Edoardo Vitaletti succeeds in quickly building a heavy sense of oppression and the gloomy visuals from cinematographer David Kruta only make it feel more suffocating. Much like Robert Eggers' seminal folk horror, there is no joy or humour to be found in this story. The performances from Fuhrman and Scott are restrained to the point of being muted and although there are fleeting glimpses of passion and rebellion, they are few and far between. The result is that for long stretches, it threatens to play out like a downbeat melodrama. It would be obvious to call this a slow burn but the reality is that although this pot simmers away gently, it never reaches boiling point. Well, not until very late on anyway.
Although the actual horror of The Last Thing Mary Saw is sparse, it works when we do get it due in no small part to a truly unsettling turn by Judith Roberts, whose mere appearance on screen is enough to give you the willies. However, the real strength of the film lies elsewhere. Despite a plot that's a little too pared down, it acts as a contemplative but tense tale of religious intolerance and forbidden love. The script may ask us to fill in some of the blanks ourselves, rather than spoon feed everything to us – but for viewers who like something to chew on after the credits roll, this will only be welcome.
If films were judged on how well they created a mood, then The Last Thing Mary Saw would be up there with the best. Its understated sense of menace and malaise will leave you feeling cold. We just wish the storytelling was as honed and there was a bit more substance to it all.