Historical horror is a genre that doesn’t receive that many entries, but when these films do come out they tend to do things quite different with the genre; they push into strange new directions and end up being quite memorable and talked about. I’m sure you’ll be thinking of some titles already, things like The Witch, The Woman In Black, or Hagazussa that stand out from the more conventional modern set horror films.
The Last Thing Mary Saw takes some influence from these films in the sense that it’s a very slow building story, one that’s filled with tension, long silences, and quietly paced scenes that allow the audience to linger uncomfortably. Because of this, the film manages to ramp up the sense of unease that pervades the story to the point where you’re waiting for something truly terrible to happen, even if just to end the growing unease that’s been building for the last ten minutes.
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The story begins in New York state in 1840, following an awful event that the audience has not been let in on yet. We join a group of investigators as they try to get the truth of what happened from the only witness/suspect, Mary (Stefanie Scott), a young woman who has been horribly blinded; her wounded eyes slowly bleeding from behind her mask. As the men question Mary at gunpoint, afraid that the young woman may be some kind of witch or supernatural being, the story takes us backwards in time as Mary begins her tale.
We learn that Mary comes from a brutal, puritanical household, one where religion reigns supreme under the heel of the family Matriarch (Judith Roberts). It’s in this home that Mary is secretly having an illicit relationship with the household maid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman); an affair that they must keep secret at all costs or suffer literally crippling punishment for going against god’s laws. Whilst the two of them manage to keep their relationship secret, their obvious closeness keeps getting them in trouble. Unfortunately, one night the two of them are finally caught together; leading to a series of tragic events.
Whilst there are certainly subtle supernatural elements involved in The Last Thing Mary Saw these don’t really take centre stage, and it’s the horror of people’s inhumanity to ourselves that makes this such a horrific film to watch. Even before Mary and Eleanor are caught together we see the brutal hand of the Matriarch at play, forcing people to kneel on hard rice as they quote biblical verse for hours on end; a punishment that has led to the groundsman being unable to walk properly anymore. It’s a home where the ever present threat of punishment keeps the inhabitants on edge, always wary of angering the head of the family.
This approach may be too hands off for some, and the smattering of supernatural elements might not be enough to keep some horror fans happy – those who like seeing monsters and killers stalking helpless victims. But, I think that this is a much more realistic and relatable approach to horror. This is the kind of horror that people still live with to this very day, that a lot of people will have had experienced to some degree or another. It might not be to the extremes of being tortured by religious zealots (though that very much does happen), but I think most of us will have experienced being in an environment where we’ve been too scared to be ourselves, to speak out and be true to who we are for fear of some kind of punishment from a figure of authority.
This is something that I think a lot of queer people will recognise too. Being a part of the LGBTQ+ community myself, watching this relationship having to take place in secret, hidden away as much as possible because you know that the people around you will harm you, is a very real experience that I can connect with. Whilst I’m luckier than Mary in the sense of having a loving and accepting family, I grew up discovering my queer identity in a Britain under Section 28, and this film did dredge up some of those old feelings of pain and hurt that I grew up with, which certainly made the film hit a lot harder.
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That being said, I’m starting to get a bit fed up with historical queer stories, or queer stories in general, that only focus on queer suffering. There is more to being queer than pain. It can be a beautiful, wonderful thing, even in a historical setting where it was much less accepted. There have been recorded queer relationships thriving in history, so I’d like to see that for once rather than a story dictated by pain. But I know this is a horror film, and that doesn’t really fit with the genre. But if you’re going into this as a queer viewer perhaps just make sure you’re in a good head-space first, because this isn’t an easy viewing experience.
The Last Thing Mary Saw is a tense, heart-wrenching, and at times painful film to watch; one with a solid central cast who really drag you in and get you invested in their stories. If you’re looking for a creepy, subtle period horror film this is one that should definitely be given your time.
The Last Thing Mary Saw is available on Shudder from 20th January, and on DVD and Digital on 19th September 2022 from Acorn Media International.