Religion – An act of faith, worship, and the education of stories and fables that revolve around a supreme being of great omnipotence. Jesus Christ, God, Allah, and many other distinct versions fall into this category across the globe. For centuries, countless have used this practice to guide and shape their lives in happiness and spirituality, while others have used it as a means to righteously persecute, demand obedience, and even initiate violent acts against those around them. Wielding knowledge of the various interpretations of the Bible and a skewed, entitled perspective obtained from its teachings, these said groups and individuals craft whatever narrative they see fit to bring about calamity to those who don’t abide by that same mentality in any manner, including within their own households and communities. In an attempt to keep themselves sanctified in the lord’s graces, a level of fanaticism is often reached, which is never good for anyone involved or otherwise. The Crusades and The Salem Witch Trials anyone? But I digress.
In a time where horror takes on supernatural and paranormal phenomenon on a regular basis, it’s easy to lose sight of one of the most effective usages of terror in cinema and reality today — Now, religion, in all its zealotry plays a significantly powerful role in The Last Thing Mary Saw (2021); a crackling, unhurried burn of a feature that brings these thematic elements to the forefront while crafting a chiller of a cautionary tale..
In 1843 on a dreary farm in rural New York, a young woman named Mary (Stefanie Scott) finds herself acting on her repressed romantic desires for a vigilant maid named Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman) who shares the same intimate feelings. Unfortunately for the couple, Mary’s stern and overly religious family, led by her sinister matriarchal Grandmother (Judith Roberts), have bestowed upon themselves the right to punish the lovers for their sins. They believe the women’s secretive yearnings and transgressions are an abomination against God that will bring about death and destruction to the rest of the clan. So, they seek to correct and cure them of their sickness. By any means necessary. Needless to say Fucked-up ness ensues.
Writer/Director Edoardo Vitaletti makes his idealistic debut with an icy drama that does away with the conventionalism of gore, thrills, and scares, instead leaning into subtleties and bouts of callousness to create this foreboding tension that slowly rakes and lingers across the screen. One of the quietest films ever as it barely possesses a score, half of the dialogue is mostly hushed, and the majority of the characters are timid or muted, whether in their prayers, secrets, or savagery. Which, in a way, is indicative of what this type of existence entails, especially during the 19th century time period. In fact the only time any actual life brims forth is when the rather wholesome affair is shown or when the suffering takes center stage because of it. Other than that the setting and locales are atmospheric, but empty. No vibrancy or levity, which makes us understand why Mary and Eleanor can’t keep their feelings hidden. If anything, it literally gives them a sense of long-standing purpose, despite the grueling acts of correction that decimates them. It’s a startling parallel to the risks many people have to take just to live their truest selves next to those who will revel in their deconstruction. Sadly enough, Vitaletti also revels in stomping out any semblance of joy or belonging that the women obtain by Mary’s increasingly paranoid family, and as their situation becomes more threatening, even MORE subjugation is on the horizon, as well as a revelation that could expose the hypocrisy of this devout family.
Thanks to the moody setting, naturalistic lighting, and somber tone, there’s certainly a comparison to Robert Eggers’ The VVitch (2015) that I’m sure horror fanatics will claim. And while that may be true, I dare state this story has a stronger commonality with The Cruicble (1996) and a smidge of Saint Maud (2019) and First Reformed (2017) thrown in for good measure.
Which leads to the performances. Since Vitaletti has many stretches of the story with little to no dialogue, the performances are just as subtle as everything else, daring you to peek beneath the surface of every stride, expression, and movement. Which our actors accomplish extremely well. Scott, Fuhrman, and Roberts lead the pack swimmingly in their portrayals. Though surprisingly standing next to the trio was an appearance by an almost unrecognizable Rory Culkin who brought in an enigmatic and significant showing. Plus it seems like he actually talks the most in the entire film even though his role was limited. Another great showing regardless.
Bottom line, this tale of religious condemnation, rampant superstition, and unrequited love is as brutal as it is unsettling and claustrophobic. A gloomy feature, dripping with doom that never ceases to pack on the stifling desolation and crippling oppression. This may not become an instant or future classic, but Vitaletti makes it worth investing some of your time. If only to witness what he brings to the genre and further reminding a viewer that true horror and cruelty can reside in misguided or fanatic hearts and minds as well as the looming unknown. Hopefully this won’t be the last thing we see from the writer/director because that certainly would be a sin in need of proper correction.
The Last Thing Mary Saw (2021) is playing as part of the Fantasia Festival – https://fantasiafestival.com/fr/film/the-last-thing-mary-saw
Review written by Marcus Wilturner