A slice of Puritan gothic, deeply shadowed and seething. In 1843, Mary (Stefanie Scott) – a bandage over her eyes and blood on her cheeks – is interrogated about what happened to her family, and flashbacks reveal their fates. Which, as might be expected, were not happy.
The daughter of a stern but prosperous household, Mary is criticised for having too close a friendship with maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman) – strict penalties are enforced against anything like ungodly behaviour, which extend to breaking the leg of a watchman (P.J. Sosko) who attempts to run away. Though a year is given for these events, it takes place in a particular stretch of the American past that runs from the colonial era of The Witch to the 1970s of The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw where a cold, cruel Christianity sets out to crush any alternative way of life and only serves to make the ways of the witchcraft more tempting to those constrained under the iron rule. A passing mountebank with a facial birthmark (Rory Culkin) is instrumental in offering Mary and Eleanor a way out of their bind … though, of course, it doesn’t work out as well as they hope, climaxing in a round-the-dinner-table session that litters the house with corpses.
Written and directed by Edoardo Vitaletti, The Last Thing Mary Saw has a feel for oppression and gets a lot of mileage out of weathered faces – Judith Roberts (‘the beautiful girl across the hall’ from Eraserhead) is particularly striking as a witchlike matriarch whose death is an inciting incident in the plot – and down-home gloom. A downside is that several distancing devices – chapter headings, a lengthy reading from a fable that replicates the plot, entwining roots and branches of frame – keep this from being as viscerally involving as it is chilling. But it’s an insidiously creepy, provocative exercise in supernatural Americana, liable to stick in the mind for a while.