A young woman is tied to a chair by candlelight, blood streaming down beneath a blindfold wrapped tightly around her face. She recites the Lord’s Prayer while men point rifles at her head and wait for her to stumble on the words, but she makes no mistakes; the accused woman, witch or murderer, knows her Bible.
So begins the new film The Last Thing Mary Saw, which is being released through Shudder on January 20th. The picture brings to mind other recent movies which dabble in the dark arts of feminist religious horror, perhaps beginning with the surprising success of 2015’s The Witch and continuing through the astonishing Saint Maud and the recent Benedetta. These films each explore sexuality, repression, and theology in their own specific and critically lauded way, eschewing traditional scares for something more thought-provoking and atmospheric, and The Last Thing Mary Saw is a fitting continuation of this lineage.
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Edoardo Vitaletti’s first film is framed by an interrogation of the mysteriously blinded Mary, played by Stefanie Scott (from two of the Insidious films). She is accused of murder and possibly witchcraft, which surely has something to do with her lesbian relationship with Eleanor, a family servant played by Isabelle Fuhrman (from The Hunger Games, along with the horror films Orphan and the upcoming sequel, Orphan: First Kill). Fuhrman and Scott appeared together in Good Girls Get High, and their familiarity and chemistry with each other bind this film together.
The two young actors aren’t the only horror vets in the cast– the epically underrated and usually underused Judith Roberts appears prominently here and, as in many of the projects she works on, is one of the creepiest aspects of the film. From David Lynch’s Eraserhead in 1977 to James Wan’s Dead Silence thirty years later, she remains an incredibly memorable part of everything she works on, including and especially her roles in the Joaquin Phoenix art film You Were Never Really Here and the television series The Heart, She Holler. At 87, Roberts is still in complete control of her horrific craft, drawing on her wonderful and unique features and magnetic presence to dominate every scene that she’s in.
In The Last Thing Mary Saw, Roberts is credited simply as The Matriarch, which makes perfect sense; she hovers around the entire production with a domineering presence and disturbing power over the family she lords over. She is a religious fundamentalist, but one who is darker and more aware of the demonic than any other stereotypical representation of extreme religion. She is tasked with ‘correcting’ the behavior of the young women, which includes torture, interrogation, and a bevy of Biblical references. She acts as a kind of angel of God here, considering the term often translated as ‘angel’ in both Greek and Hebrew simply means ‘messenger.’ The Matriarch takes her role as God’s messenger deathly seriously, but the film is sure to point out that even the devil was once an angel.
“For this purpose, the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil,” Mary’s doubting interrogator tells her.
“Lucifer was an angel before we cast the name of the devil upon him,” she responds. “God creates enemies in order to perform [God’s] good.”
“God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”
This seems to be the theological crux of the film, which navigates the tricky spiritual waters of evil and divine purposes expertly. The Last Thing Mary Saw begins with a quote from the revered Reformer and namesake of Calvinism, John Calvin, who took Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church to whole new extremes. “All events whatsoever are garnered by the secret counsel of God,” goes the text from Calvin’s influential book of theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin, like this film, was interested in the ramifications of God’s sovereignty– what does it mean if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent? How does this explain or obfuscate the nature of evil? If God is in control, then wouldn’t even Satan himself be an agent of the divine? “God creates enemies in order to perform [God’s] good,” Mary said, and the audience wonders just who she’s referring to. Who is an enemy here, and what is God’s good?
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The religious motifs in the film are a rich and varied delight to anyone with theological leanings or an interest in the Christian faith; be on the lookout for some great symbolism referencing Michelangelo’s legendary “The Creation of Adam.” As mentioned, there has been a glut of films that observe religion from a kind of distance, intimately interested in the workings of faith but self-aware and objective enough to deconstruct problematic ideas. Silence, First Reformed, Mary Magdalene, and Last Days in the Desert have all recently dissected familiar aspects of faith, and are indicative of the world’s increasing secularization. America, in particular, has been divided between the growing, vocal fundamentalism of a small portion of Christians, and a massive upsurge in the number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated, atheists, or agnostics. This has been termed ‘the rise of the nones,’ and cinema has not been left out of the trend. On one hand, extremely conservative Evangelical films have found success in what one might call the New Christian Cinema (God’s Not Dead, The Shack) which have been mocked and abhorred by the critical establishment; on the other hand, all the aforementioned films have expressed the (usually youthful) dissatisfaction and concern with religion. When Mary is interrogated in The Last Thing Mary Saw, it is as if religion itself is under question.
Interestingly, the majority of these films take place in the past, generally during specific historical moments in the Christian tradition– the Puritanism of early Pilgrims in The Witch, the Catholic colonization of Asia in Silence, the first-century dawn of the faith in Mary Magdalene. The Last Thing Mary Saw is set in the early 1840s, a time when modernization, industrialization, and the dawn of globalization had begun to chip away at the unified cohesion of the church. Christianity began to splinter across hundreds of denominations, resulting in the roughly 45,000 Christian denominations which exist globally today.
The Violence From Silence
Vitaletti’s film portrays the firm and often cruel attempts at control which religious leaders grasped for at the time in an effort to stave off further fracture. Though there is doubt, lust, lies, and violence within Mary’s family, the household is ruled by silence; nobody wants to discuss what they call ‘sins,’ they only wish to correct them in the most humiliating and hurtful ways possible. The result of this kind of religious coercion can only be violence and atheism. “This is what silence did to our family,” Mary tells her father after a shockingly gruesome scene. “This is the real price of correction […] No one is watching. Nobody cares.” Faith and spirituality can neither be enforced nor coerced (and especially not legislated, as many now try to do), as the film shows. Perhaps the effort to do so has even been the catalyst for this ‘rise of the nones.’
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The film is often subdued, but when violence does erupt it is brutal and haunting– certain scenes of poisoning and painful death have the ability to sear a hole in the soul of viewers, as does Mary’s ultimate blinding. Mostly, however, the movie adopts an atmospheric dread over the course of its runtime, allowing the three central female performances to play off of each other in a deathly dance. The lighting is sometimes candle-lit and dim, forcing the cinematography into effectively claustrophobic close-ups, and the film occasionally edits these images in a genuinely poetic way. The scenes complement each other less in terms of narrative development than they do with instinctual, thematic meaning-making.
Unfortunately, some of this poetic ambiguity works to the detriment of the film, especially in the later middle portions when Rory Culkin is introduced as The Intruder. Culkin does a fine job and delivers a good monologue about his own disfigurement and abandonment by religious extremists, but the appearance of this character, his motivations, and his use in the plot mechanics are confusing and superfluous. Ironically, he is used as a cheap deus ex machina in a film that deeply questions the machinations of God.
Ultimately, however, Vitaletti’s film works as a quiet interrogation of fundamentalism and theologian’s attempts to grapple with the nature of evil. It will certainly please horror fans (and lapsed or progressive Christians) who enjoyed The Witch and Saint Maud, or any slow-burn and thought-provoking movie less interested in scares than they are in developing dread. It is a very good part of a new trend in horror in which directors, to quote the Apostle Paul, “continue to work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling.”
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Editor and writer for Movieweb.com. Lover of film, philosophy, and theology. Amateur human. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
From Matthew Mahler