When you watch Shudder’s newest horror offering, The Last Thing Mary Saw, your mind might immediately go to Robert Eggers’ puritanical nightmare, The Witch. But Edoardo Vitaletti’s gothic interrogation of religious zealotry and the sadistic brutality it lavishes in is more akin to Mary Harron’s stunning slow burn series Alias Grace. This is American Gothic so, yes, there might be something supernatural afoot. But the true horror here is humanity and the pleasure they take in the destruction of those who don’t fit into their assigned roles.
Set in 1840s Southold, New York, The Last Thing Mary Saw begins with a woman crying tears of blood. A trial is taking place and Mary (Stefanie Scott) is at its center. Someone has been murdered, and the young, rebelious, and—as we’ll soon find out—queer member of the family has been blamed. From there, Vitaletti sends us back in chapters, taking a menacing and often meandering look at Mary’s journey from troubled daughter to accused killer. Mary’s story is told in tandem with that of Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman), the maid that she falls in love with. In her strict Calvinist household this dalliance is seen as a sign of the devil and deep seeded evil.
After consulting with the family matriarch, the young women are set on a dangerous path. Punitive correction is around every corner, but of course it does nothing but push the pair closer together. These early sequences, the juxtaposition of fiery yet restrained passion and prolonged grim punishment (being made to kneel on rice for hours) set up the film’s biggest strength: an unsettling tension that permeates throughout even during the occasionally painfully slow pace. In many ways this feels like it might have been better as a stage play. The intimate cast and slowburn build may have had more impact if the audience were closer to the action.
Delicately balancing their journey from tentative lovers and afraid young women to accused murderesses, Scott and Fuhrman are the squirming, gushing heart of the film. Their performances anchor the atmosphere piece, which at times can get lost in its own extreme slowburn pursuit of tension. But while their relationship is key, it suffers from being nothing more than a surface level exploration of their connection. Most of it is seen in flashback as Mary tells her story while on trial for the aforementioned murder.
As Vitaletti weaves his tangled web, cinematographer David Kruta imbues each sequence with a haunting shadow-drenched beauty. Flickering candlelight dances across the shimmering silence of all things unspoken. But if that ambiguity of message and narrative doesn’t sound appealing, you may well be unsatisfied by The Last Thing Mary Saw. While the bleakness might just be the point, as the story becomes one of vengeance it refuses to offer the catharsis that revenge horrors can. Instead, our young lovers become victims of circumstance and hate. That lack of agency in both their relationship and their ultimate fate muddies the waters of the film.
All of that said, though, there is something darkly enchanting here nonetheless. If you’re searching for an atmosphere piece to get lost in, then light a candle, turn off the lights, and venture into the shadowy heart of this nasty little tale of religious horror.
The Last Thing Mary Saw is streaming on Shudder now.