The term “slow burn” seems to elicit one of two responses from horror fans: intrigued optimism or bored distaste. I fall into the former category. I love a film that takes its time letting the dread seep into my bones, that lowers the noose around my neck so slowly that I don’t even notice it’s there until it’s too late. Writer-director Edoardo Vitaletti’s debut feature The Last Thing Mary Saw is an immersive slow burn. The film wraps the viewer in dread like a weighted blanket, offering a moody, disturbing examination of lives governed by fear. Though the script doesn’t quite match up to the direction — the narrative and pacing don’t hang together cohesively, which may test the patience of even the most ardent of slow burn fans — The Last Thing Mary Saw is an assured debut filled with menace and mystery.
It is the winter of 1843 in Southold, New York. Mary (Stefanie Scott) and her family’s maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman) are in love, but Mary’s strict Protestant parents fear and abhor the affections between the two young women. They ask Mary’s grandmother (Judith Roberts, credited only as The Matriarch) to assist them in “correcting” Mary and shuffling Eleanor off to work for relatives lest she continue to tempt their daughter. When Mary’s extended family descends on the house to aid in the Matriarch’s corrections, Mary and Eleanor’s plight takes a deadly turn.
Fear suffuses The Last Thing Mary Saw. From Keegan DeWitt’s eerie, prickly score to David Kruta’s claustrophobic, candlelit cinematography, this is a film that continually warns of worse things to come. As Theodore (P.J. Sosko), the family’s guard, tells Eleanor, “Fear and weakness keep us here. Not devotion.” That fear governs every interaction, lending an air of foreboding and desperation to every line of dialogue and glance. The Matriarch is particularly frightening: Judith Roberts imbues the character with her trademark haughty menace, turning an act as simple as humming into a terrifying threat. The Intruder (Rory Culkin) is another fearsome character who similarly turns softly spoken words into blood-chilling warnings.
Even the happy moments when Mary and Eleanor are able to sneak away together are fraught with danger, because the viewer knows how harshly they will be punished for merely spending time in each other’s company. The greatest horror of the film lies not in any supernatural happenings, but in how far this family will go to punish queer people for being themselves. The Last Thing Mary Saw doesn’t break new ground either as a horror film or a period piece about queer trauma, but it is still an affecting, heartbreaking look at the fear and hatred aimed at queer women by patriarchal religion.
One of the most interesting things about the film is how different Eleanor and Mary are in their attitudes toward their predicament. Though the script doesn’t spend much time exploring those attitudes — or the women’s personalities or relationship with each other, for that matter — it does offer fascinating glimpses into how class may affect their differences. When Mary suggests running away, Eleanor refuses, saying, “I’m tired of a life spent hiding.” As a maid rather than a lady of the house, Eleanor has much less to lose than Mary; thus, Eleanor is in favor of extreme, definitive action while Mary wishes simply to slip away without a fuss.
Another interesting element that is left frustratingly unexamined is Mary’s father Randolph (Michael Laurence). He is far more forgiving of both Mary and Eleanor than anyone else in his family. He is the owner of the book of fables that causes the other characters such consternation, both because it is a book other than the Bible and because it features a sapphic illustration that Mary tentatively but lovingly caresses at the beginning of the film. It feels like Randolph may be queer himself, or at the very least not nearly as “devout” as the rest of his family, and I would have liked to see more of his story in a film so concerned with queerness and otherness in such a strict, repressive society.
There are times when The Last Thing Mary Saw feels willfully opaque, which may alienate some viewers but still does not detract from its beautifully suffocating mood. Though its script is weaker than its direction, the film is still a confident and disturbing exploration of fear. Though it raises far more questions than it has answers for, the answer to the film’s title is as satisfying as it is devastating; a perfect solution for a dread-soaked slow burn about queer love in the face of fear and prejudice.