Gloomy, sad and a tad hard to follow, “The Last Thing Mary Saw” is a period piece that equates persecution of same sex attraction with the war on “witchcraft,” this time in a pre-Civil War religious sect in rural New York.
First-time writer-director Edoardo Vitaletti prioritizes tone over frights, quiet over noise and violence meted as “correction,” punishment for those who tumble in “The Temple of Earthly Desires.” I can’t say it quite comes off, but it’s serious-minded enough to attract an accomplished cast and never breaks the spell it sets out to cast.
Stefanie Scott plays Mary, a daughter born into this sect, in which the preacher (Tommy Buck) is subordinate to The Matriarch (horror veteran Judith Roberts, who’s worked for David Lynch and Woody Allen over her long career).
Something’s happened to Mary when the film opens, and a constable (David Pearce) is trying to get past the sect’s accusations and find out why she’s been blinded.
“She is no devil,” he protests.
But as the flashback that tells her tale begins, her father insists “our daughter’s ears are deaf to the Lord’s preaching.”
Mary has a thing for “the maid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman), and the Matriarch’s decreed “correction” begins with forcing her to kneel on rice, and escalates from there.
There’s a book about Bethabara that the two lovers pore over, one that seems to touch on the story of Ruth and Naomi, the famous same sex couple in the Bible. The young women dream of fleeing, but looking at The Guard (P.J. Sosko) and remembering how he was kept from escaping, they lament their fate, as does he.
“Fear and weakness keep us here,” he says, “not devotion.”
As the women steal away for alone time and scheme a way out, an “intruder” (Rory Culkin) is summoned, the supernatural makes itself known and “correction” turns to retributions and reprisals.
Culkin, in films since “Richie Rich” in the 1990s, brings a quiet menace to a movie that’s already brimming over with that. The leads, Scott (“Insidious Chapter 3”) and Fuhrman (“Orphan”) have horror bonafides, but have few scenes that might have given them a chance to up the empathy ante, or that titillate or terrify.
Vitaletti has good players all dressed up in period garb, but gives them no place to go.
Rating: unrated, horror violence
Cast: Stefanie Scott, Isabelle Fuhrman, Judith Roberts, P.J. Sosko and Rory Culkin.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Edoardo Vitaletti. An Arachnid Films release.
Running time: 1:29