You don’t necessarily need complex characters or ingenious plot twists to write an engaging story. With strong imagery and a clear, palpable tone that physically affects your audience, you can transform the most overdone plot into a memorable tale. Writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti demonstrates that kind of storytelling craftsmanship in his feature debut, The Last Thing Mary Saw, which premiered at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Every aspect of this suffocatingly dark period drama, including its characters and plot, takes a backseat to its tone and mood. As a result, The Last Thing Mary Saw is bursting with palpable dread that will chill you to the bone.
The Last Thing Mary Saw opens the door to a dark world of occultism, religious anxiety, and family secrets, pulling us deep into that world from the outset and keeping us there through 89 minutes of unrelenting anxiety. The year is 1843, the place is Southold, New York. The town constable (Daniel Pearce) is questioning a woman named Mary (Stefanie Scott) after the death of her grandmother (Judith Roberts), a matriarch and spiritual leader who governed Mary’s family with an iron fist. Mary’s interrogation begins like an exorcism as she’s asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer, bloodied and blindfolded, before guards who hold guns at the ready. Making her way through the prayer without issue, Mary proceeds to tell the interrogator her dark tale. The horrific events began when her parents (Michael Laurence and Carolyn McCormick) petitioned her grandmother for disciplinary help upon discovering Mary’s relationship with the maid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman). Despite undergoing religious “corrections,” Mary and Eleanor continued to see each other in secret. The sinister events that followed, and the unimaginable family secrets that were revealed, were darker than they could have imagined.
Once Mary begins her grim story, there’s no escaping the anxiety and dread that permeate the film to its core. Vitaletti successfully creates a world where light and hope are nonexistent. Everything about The Last Thing Mary Saw is dark and claustrophobic, and Mary and Eleanor’s young love provides no relief from the pervasive dread of this unsettling tale. Most of the story occurs at night, and the small handful of daytime scenes take place under a dismal, dreary sky. The matriarchal family’s imposing farmhouse sits eerily atop their property as if it’s concealing an unspeakable evil, much like the infamous Amityville Horror House. The property is guarded by a fatalistic watchman, Theodore (P.J. Sosko), who serves the family only out of fear. The ghostly setting is enhanced by Keegan DeWitt’s devilish score, which carries echoes of exorcisms and occult ceremonies as the family enters their farmhouse late at night to bear witness to Mary’s and Eleanor’s “corrections.” Every technical aspect of the film works to create a sense of unbearable dread, which is so tangible that The Last Thing Mary Saw feels like it’s infused with evil itself.
While some horror filmmakers use blood and guts to make their audience uncomfortable, Vitaletti unsettles us with carefully staged (and perhaps even beautiful) images, using subtle details to create the illusion of an unnatural, intangible presence that sends chills down our spines. With the right lighting, color palette and staging, Vitaletti turns fairly normal situations into breeding grounds for anxiety. There’s something horrifically photogenic about the imagery in this film, and even the disgusting images (like the blood that drips down from under Mary’s blindfold as she recalls her tale to the investigator) are somehow beautiful. Vitaletti uses the people and objects in each shot to draw our eyes to a focal point, making certain objects and characters feel weighty and overbearing. Each and every shot in The Last Thing Mary Saw is like a carefully planned painting that supports the horrific mood. Plus, there’s just something unnatural about the staged nature of each shot. It’s as if the characters are participating in some kind of rehearsed ritual, and we’re caught up in the middle of it with no escape.
Vitaletti also creates anxiety by using unnatural angles and intense closeups, occasionally filming the action through a hole in the wall or a cracked door. Cinematographer David Kruta makes us feel like a clueless outsider spying on this dangerous and secretive family in the dead of night. While perspective plays an important role in the cinematography of The Last Thing Mary Saw, the film is not guided by any specific character’s point of view. As soon as we start to understand one character’s role in the grand scheme of things, the perspective switches and we’re forced to make sense of the plot from a different point of view. Just as some of the most memorable shots in the film are captured at an odd angle, we also enter the story at an odd angle, and it’s difficult to put all the pieces of the plot together. Granted, The Last Thing Mary Saw is supposed to feel unsettled, but not in a frustrating way that prohibits us from making sense of the story. Although Vitaletti successfully develops a horrific, anxious mood, he struggles to balance that mood with a clear plot.
Part of the problem is that the plot and characters seem to act as vessels for certain imagery and themes. In this film, culturally significant imagery and symbols take priority over plot and character. As a result, the film is terrifically terrifying but lacks the substance and emotional nuance it could have had. The Last Thing Mary Saw watches like a celebratory tribute to a vast array of religious/folk horror imagery. There are a handful plot points and characters in the film that don’t make logical sense, but they certainly make the story feel like an occult legend. The role of “The Intruder” (Rory Culkin), a convenient character who drips with folk horror mystique, is particularly frustrating. He enters the story awkwardly as part of a clear dramatic agenda, leaving us to question why he’s even involved with this family’s drama.
The Last Thing Mary Saw is a beautifully haunting film, but one in which plot and character take a backseat to tone, mood, and imagery. If you get easily frustrated when you can’t figure out exactly what’s going on in a movie, you’ll need to approach The Last Thing Mary Saw with lots of patience. There’s something so genuinely sinister and artful about the film that it’s worth more than one viewing. Perhaps, after seeing the movie a few times, the details of the story will fall into place. Vitaletti sacrifices clear storytelling for a specific tone, and he achieves that tone so skillfully that it’s hard to blame him. With remarkable performances and terrifying imagery that will burn itself into your mind, The Last Thing Mary Saw is a stunning example of successful horror filmmaking.
Screening during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Acquired by Shudder during the festival and will become available on the service in early 2022.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.