Featured image: Stefanie Scott as Mary and Isabelle Fuhrman as Eleanor in The Last Thing Mary Saw. (Courtesy of Fantasia.)
Directed and written by Edoardo Vitaletti. Starring Isabelle Fuhrman, Stefanie Scott, Rory Culkin. Runtime 1h 29 min. The Last Thing Mary Saw had its World Premiere on Sunday, August 15 at the Fantasia Film Festival.
The 1800s and horror are just such a great mix. Really, any film that’s horror but also a period piece is such an opportunity to utilize some of the underappreciated aspects of horror films; like showcasing great production design (by Charlie Chaspooley Robinson), costume design (Sofija Mesicek) and especially cinematography (by David Kruta, whose use of natural light looks so beautiful here). These are all checked boxes for Edoardo Vitaletti’s feature film debut, The Last Thing Mary Saw, Even from the film’s title, there’s a sense of foreboding in the film, which follows the titular Mary (Stefanie Scott) in 1853 Southold, New York.
The film picks up at an investigation where Mary is being interrogated, blindfolded and gore running from her eyes. From the first 10 minutes alone, Vitaletti draws on our curiosity with that imagery. Mary’s being investigated for her relationship with live-in maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman), but a family tragedy has also befallen Mary’s household. Their “beloved” matriarch is dead, and throughout the film, we uncover the mystery.
As much mystery as it is horror, Viataletti’s screenplay expertly takes us through chapters as we learn more about what happened and some of the background behind the family dynamics. Looking into the premise, this totally sounds like a period drama on paper. That’s the great thing about horror, take out all those elements and you still have such a powerful drama. When the horror elements are at their best, they’re truly chilling and bring an extra layer to the excitement here. The family’s day of mourning, which is almost entirely silent, is filled to the brim with palpable tension and is one of the strongest stretches in the film.
The Last Thing Mary Saw is also fascinating in its character work, with full arcs from both Stefanie Scott’s Mary and Isabelle Fuhrman’s Eleanor. Their chemistry works; both in rare scenes of passion and in friendship. Having them sneak out to an on-site cabin at night in order to be at peace from the others’ scrutiny is good writing. It’s an interesting way, too, to rope in another core character, Theodore (P.J. Sosko), who guards the grounds at night and let’s them stay in the barn in exchange for bread. The way the family’s religion comes into play as they judge the pair’s lesbianism is fascinating in dialogue, especially. As the family discusses whether or not to send away Eleanor to another family, the potential buyer says, “We seek to eradicate the evil flower by cutting the stem, but the roots are too deep. I’m afraid it’ll grow again.”
Fuhrman, especially, showcases emotions well about the frustration of being put under a microscope just because of who you love. On multiple occasions, when they’re caught, the pair are punished profusely by being made to kneel on rice. Stefanie Scott shows her frustration well, too, albeit in more reserved ways. Her protective instincts are the most interesting part of her character.
It’s all a very interesting way in into this mystery, as the relationship between the pair really sets the tone and themes of the film. The film is also impressively paced considering this is the type of film that could often feel like a slow burn. It’s separated into three chapters that helps it feel like it moves quickly, and the explanation for the horror elements is very creatively done by Vitaletti. As well, just to shout out Rory Culkin, he’s a welcome sight at one point in the film, who headlines one of the film’s chapters. The way the scene between him and Fuhrman plays out downstairs, edited with the creepiness going on at the funeral upstairs, is masterfully done by all, especially in writing, directing and editing (by Matthew C. Hart). It’s scenes like that one that make me look forward to watching this creep-fest again, and whatever story Vitaletti tackles next.