The Last Thing Mary Saw
Written and directed by Edoardo Vitaletti. US, 2021, 86 minutes.
Available with subscription on Shudder.
Edoardo Vitaletti’s The Last Thing Mary Saw is one of the more impressive horror films of recent years on a compositional level. Set in a lonely misbegotten patch of New England land in the 1840s where it seems as if all the color has been drained out of the world during daylight, here the more recent cinematic trends of muted color grading have the rare positive effect of making sickly an otherwise romantic pastoral space. However the real beauty is when the sun goes down, and housemaid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman) runs off with young Mary (Stefanie Scott) to make sapphic fun with one another, lit gracefully with a barrage of candles, lanterns, and natural fire that gives both actresses a glowing amber hue. Knowing the time and place where this story occurs should indicate that the delight to be had in Eleanor and Mary’s tryst will eventually be punished under religious dogma—and true enough, writer/director Vitaletti begins the movie with a quote asserting God’s ever watchful vision. But they risk it all anyway, and find that those lanterns forging a path of seduction answered cannot illuminate the barren space of a newly plucked eye.
The proposition of settlement in the Americas was always founded on foolish notions of building a utopia among like-minded individuals who wished to enforce their social and religious practices on all born into the sect. In movies this usually manifests through the conflict of freeing oneself from patriarchal notions of sexism—in settlement-era films, often building towards the endpoint of a witch burned at the stake. The Last Thing Mary Saw operates under these modes of communication, yet with a twist of queer representation that isn’t inserted for titillation but for thematic resonance.
While Mary has more than a few things in common with witch-burning fables, such as the inquisition of religious leaders and scenes of rituals meant to punish those found in league with Satan, it is more rightly considered as a portrait of conversion therapy (it is never revealed which religion Mary’s family adheres to, but it is some Christian gumbo of Catholicism and Protestantism with a dash of witchcraft from the eldest matriarch, played by Judith Roberts). Thus Eleanor and Mary are not immediately disposed of when they are found wrapped around one another in a barn: Their elders are good New Englanders who try to set them right by a series of punishments and tortures meant to rid the body of that spark that comes with sexual attraction. The most vicious of these, leaned into with multiple close-ups, are prayer sessions where the bended knees of these “sinners” are pressed into bricks. The effect is a strongly composed image, religion and punishment made sensual by the bowing and offering of the body—not to the savior, but to the slab.
A utopia is only ever achievable in a personal sense of self-fulfillment and the early settlements of America were turned into a graveyard for all those who believed different. When the eldest matriarch dies suddenly there is a long stretch where the film is without dialogue due to a belief in the family that in order to grieve one must be silent for 24 hours. It is a bold choice on the part of Vitaletti, who seems to believe that a movie can’t be worth much if it cannot communicate visually. The funeral section is impressive with angular, Bergmanesque blocking of bodies draped in black robes and lace. It is here when the film becomes something else entirely—a murder plot is envisioned where Mary and Eleanor may have to kill everyone for their love to survive, and communicate their plan through eye contact and hidden languages. What follows is a narrative pattern of conservative realism against queer people that is still very much alive today. Fuhrman is particularly great in this stretch, with complex, ruminative body language illustrative of someone who’s broken but refuses to be for much longer. The performer came into horror cinema like a lightning bolt in Jaume Collet Serra’s Orphan (2009), giving one of the genre’s best performances of the last fifteen years, and this is another fine point in her resume.
Horror movies have been plagued of late with a thematic heaviness that overrides concerns of genuine craft, but The Last Thing Mary Saw is an exception. This is a movie where lighting, movement, and visual language are the first concern, and everything else is informed by those choices. It challenges itself to find a new way of interpreting a standard fable of sexist condemnation, and does so visually—in hidden lights under the cover of night, close-ups of chalked knees in anguish, and the sensuality of thin, clasping fingers clutching an identical hand for release and for pleasure. Mary isn’t much of a horror movie by the usual standards, but as a desperate story of queer love made to snap back in the pursuit of survival it is more than adequate. [★★★★]
This review was first published on author Willow Catelyn Maclay’s Patreon, available here.