Arguably, the most fundamental aspect of horror is expressing victimhood, whether that be victimisation by a masked killer, a malevolent supernatural force or wider societal forces. The Last Thing Mary Saw offers the last of these with suggestions of something else, but whether there is a need for any horror beyond the societal forces is debatable. Set in New York in 1843, Mary (Stefanie Scott) is the eldest daughter of a landowning family. Across three chapters, Mary narrates to the Interrogator (Daniel Pearce) the events that led to her being arrested. Chief among these is the forbidden passion between Mary and her housemaid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman), their homosexual relationship condemned as ‘unnatural’ by Mary’s rigidly Christian family. The punishment of the girls is wince-inducing and heartbreaking, and also proves to be consistent with the family’s cruel behaviour when we learn of the treatment of another servant, Theodore (P. J. Sosko), whose resentment is well-balanced with resignation.
The unhappy household, ruled with an iron fist by the Matriarch (Judith Roberts) forms the setting for a film about oppression that itself feels oppressive. Writer-director Edoardo Vitaletti and production designer Charlie Chaspooley Robinson create discomfiting surroundings through drab interiors with looming walls and ceilings, while director of photography David Kurta lenses the scenes in chilly, washed-out tones. Deep focus shots provide a long perspective, often of windows from the end of seemingly long corridors, adding to the sense of entrapment despite freedom seeming so close. Vitaletti shows confidence in the cinematic apparatus that he utilises effectively, as much of the film is wordless. Expression of theme is delivered through guarded faces, footsteps on the bare floorboards, creaks in the house and ominous candlelight. It is easy to forget the importance of lighting in film, because it is so fundamental that we rarely notice it. Here, Vitaletti balances flickering candlelight with deep shadow, indicating the menacing darkness that surrounds Mary and Eleanor and the feeble light that obscures as much as it illuminates. As mentioned, there are long stretches when no one speaks, and one character who ceases to speak altogether, and these stretches are juxtaposed with moments when characters speak at length as though delivering sermons. The dialogue is period-appropriate and softly spoken, the whispered ‘sermons’ adding an auditory dimension to the oppressive atmosphere. The sermonisers have no need for volume, as they brook no discussion and rapt attention is both expected and enforced.
Through its mise-en-scene, old-style dialogue and subject matter, The Last Thing Mary Saw is reminiscent of Robert Eggers’ The Witch with touches of William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth. These period dramas all feature young women who struggle against social strictures, and like these films, The Last Thing Mary Saw evokes a strong sense of place and time. The dogmatic theological subjugation is scarily recent – rather than being 1690s Salem, this is mid-18th century New York, and much of the treatment of those who do not conform remains relevant. The contemporary resonance of this period story helps make The Last Thing Mary Saw a deeply sad tale with many disturbing moments. No one uses the term witchcraft, but its spectre weighs heavily over the proceedings. However, the end result is perhaps even more horrifying, as what serves as the ultimate source of suffering and oppression is not what you might expect. We see fear and hatred of what is different, but when things become seriously Old Testament, there is a strong sense of institutionalised domination that is very far from being Other. The last thing that did Mary see proves to be this source of subjugation, and the final image that the viewer sees, while heavily foreshadowed, ensures that this ominous tale will linger long in the memory.