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‘The Last Thing Mary Saw’ Review: Shudder’s smoky thriller makes for a formally foreboding debut

The first feature from writer-director Edoardo Vitaletti takes some of the best lessons from "The Witch," but its narrative is missing momentum.
Credit: Shudder

SAN ANTONIO — Though it’s hardly the first film to come along in the last few years of which this can be said, it’s hard to imagine new Shudder original “The Last Thing Mary Saw” – which hit the screams-centric streaming service Thursday – existing in a world where “The Witch” didn’t cast a dark spell over audiences first. 

Suffused with the same gauzy ambience, woozy pacing, religious zealotry and dollops of macabre imagery that have found their way into many a horror-adjacent prayers-and-pariahs tale ever since Robert Eggers weaved them so hauntingly into his 2015 debut, “The Last Thing Mary Saw” is, first and foremost, an apostle of that very distinct cinematic mode. That happens to go a fairly long way for writer-director Edoardo Vitaletti’s feature debut, which lacks a certain distinction of its own. Obvious in its themes but grimly oblique in its proximity to menace – supernatural, ordinarily natural or otherwise – perhaps the most important lesson the movie took from “The Witch” (aside from “You’re never as alone as you think you are”) is that folk horror need not be outwardly terrifying in order to be unsettling as hell. 

But unsettling visuals don’t always translate to unsettling feeling, and the misstep Vitaletti makes is that his craft comes at the expense of his screenplay. Not much suspense is churned over where spiritual battle lines are drawn in the isolated New York mansion where “The Last Thing Mary Saw” unfolds, especially when we see young Mary (Stefanie Scott) embracing the family maid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman), under the cover of night. The movie-opening tipoff that the year is 1843 should tell you all you need to know about how the none-too-secretive relationship will be addressed by Mary’s hyperdevout family; indeed, torturous punishment comes to be administered faster than you can say, “Think on your sins.”

Vitaletti presents these early scenes rather dutifully, knowing full well the material is nothing particularly new. Even the blooming infatuation between Eleanor and Mary is depicted at a slight remove – quite literally at one point, when Mary’s younger brother listens in on them through a hole in the ceiling – which prevents us from fully connecting with them as characters as much as it helps keep “The Last Thing Mary Saw” to the point. Suffice to say, the point doesn’t seem to be drawing us into Mary and Eleanor’s romantic orbit so much as anticipating the terrible fates that will befall them. 

To the movie’s credit, that angle is a clearly defined one—the fantasy of escape overshadowed by the increasingly fiendish forces at work to maintain the status quo and prevent liberation. The question of who comes out on top in that struggle is foregrounded both in the film’s strict flashback structure and its opening scene, in which a blindfolded Mary is questioned about the specifics of some unknown atrocity Vitaletti marches toward in his parallel timeline. The last thing Mary saw may not be as pressing as the last thing Mary may have done, or very well had the capacity to do. 

But even this mystery feels a bit static, the young writer-director showcasing a finessed touch for conjuring a glowering mood but not yet as adept at giving it dimension. And Vitaletti’s penchant for close-ups doesn’t do Scott or Fuhrman’s broad-strokes performances any favors. Even when “The Last Thing Mary Saw” takes turns for the hellish about halfway through its 89 minutes, it relies heavily on a pair of actors to turn the dial from ghostly to fearsome. The first is Mary’s grandmother, a menacing matriarch played by Judith Roberts (herself a matriarch for genre cinema, having appeared previously in “Dead Silence” and “Eraserhead”). Her Sunday blessings are intoned like threats, her presence giving frightening crackle to the movie’s smokey atmosphere. 

The other is a beguiling Rory Culkin, credited only as “the Intruder” and appearing late in the game under a mane of shaggy black hair that’d make Timothee Chalamet envious. Ostensibly bringing provisions to the house, this brooding figure – all whispers and quiet rage suited for a Sith Lord – has a mysterious timing that provides the closest thing the film has to a jump start for its idling engine. Perhaps there’s a connection to be made between the stranger and Mary’s grandmother, the tinderbox impulsiveness of youth balancing the sinister steadfastness of oppression? 

Perhaps. 

Whatever connection there is to be drawn, whether in theme or in character, is too easily snuffed out by the weight of atmosphere. It’s funny that a period thriller about the perils of conforming is content to fit into the outline of familiar aesthetics. But at least in Vitaletti’s hands, it’s quite a snug fit indeed. 

"The Last Thing Mary Saw" is not rated. It's now streaming on Shudder. 

Starring: Rory Culkin, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stefanie Scott, Carolyn McCormick

Directed by Edoardo Vitaletti

Runtime: 1 hour, 29 minutes

2022

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