he old farmhouse serving as the key shooting site of The Last Thing Mary Saw is located on picturesque turf alongside Long Island Sound, and the dining room where the crew is set up on the day FANGORIA visits is redolent with mid-1800s atmosphere. With the windows covered to keep the sun out, the space is lit by real and simulated firelight and candlelight, with a fog machine providing atmospheric smoke. The actors are all done up in proper period garb, though in between takes, a couple of them break the illusion by checking their cell phones. You get a sense right away of the mood writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti is going for — and that he’s very much achieving it.
Set in 1843, The Last Thing Mary Saw stars Stefanie Scott (Insidious: Chapter 3) in the title role of the youngest daughter in a repressive religious family. After she finds her grandmother Constance (Judith Roberts) dead, she is interrogated by the town constable, and frightening secrets about the family are revealed. Adding extra intrigue to the storytelling, “The movie has a particular, nonlinear structure; It’s told pretty much in reverse,” Vitaletti says. “I wanted to see if I could tell a story by peeling off the innermost layers, as opposed to the outermost ones, and see how that unfolds.”
Vitaletti, who’s making his feature debut with The Last Thing Mary Saw, expanded the screenplay from his short story, which was inspired by his research into paintings and literature involving funeral traditions of different cultures. “Especially Nordic European stuff — a lot of Norwegian paintings, and some from the Faroe Islands,” he explains. “I realized that there was a certain iconography to the representations in the paintings, and how different families, especially cultures in the Nordic countries, explore the funeral. There’s such an intrinsic rituality behind it that fascinated me, and I started thinking about the different family dynamics that are involved in the funeral procession, and the person who died, and how people become different when the head of the family is no longer there to listen to or watch over them.
“Then, on a more personal level,” he continues, “I was born and raised in Italy, in a very Catholic community — not so much my family, but in general it was very restrictive, at times obsessively so. The story of the two main characters, Mary and Eleanor, who are trying to find their happiness within the boundaries of a culture that does not approve of the kind of happiness they are looking for spoke a lot to personal experiences and things I’ve seen or lived through. Plus, I have a fascination with the time period and this general area of the country — New York State, Long Island — which has a rich history starting with the Puritans and continuing through the Protestant awakenings and so forth. That all blended together into the telling of this story.”
Eleanor, a young woman who works for Mary’s family and begins a forbidden relationship with her, is played by Isabelle Fuhrman, from Orphan, The Hunger Games, and Cell. She finds that the farmhouse, with its small rooms and narrow halls and stairwells, is a perfect location for this film.
“It’s about the two of them finding happiness with each other in this very confined, claustrophobic household, where you constantly feel like you’re being watched,” Fuhrman says. “This house has really become a character in the story because when we first showed up, you realized that every step you take, you can hear throughout the whole house, and that’s because it was built at the time this story takes place. So it puts a lot into your head about what it must have been like at that time: trying to sneak around and have a friendship, to have somebody you can confide in, in a place where you can’t really say what’s on your mind, you can’t speak loud enough that someone might hear, where everything is connected and everyone can always be heard on the other side of the house.”
For Scott, that sense of confinement intensifies the religious repression that’s at the heart of the movie’s horrors.
“Mary has grown up entirely in the farmhouse,” the actress notes. “She has never been outside it before, so she’s kind of trapped in this world and doesn’t know any others. All she really does is study Bible verses every day, and her duty is to fear God. It’s a very fear-based family; there doesn’t seem to be much love or joy, and Mary finds that in Eleanor, and that’s why she can’t keep away from her. She’s always sneaking off to try to find Eleanor, because, with her, Mary has found this new sense of a different world or a different way to live. That contributes to her questioning her faith, and what’s on the outside, and then questioning the way she’s being treated by her family, and punished based on beliefs that she maybe doesn’t believe in.”
As if this intrigue isn’t enough, more is added by the arrival of Rupert, a drifter who happens upon the family and attempts to take advantage of them. “He’s sort of a home invader,” says Rory Culkin (Lords of Chaos), who plays Rupert. “He’s from the outskirts; he’s very much an outsider. He’s such a strange character.”
In fact, Culkin found The Last Thing Mary Saw to be very odd in general when it was first presented to him — which was part of what inspired him to join in. “After I read the script, I wanted to meet Edoardo and ask him, ‘What did I just read?’ That was the first thing I said when we sat down: ‘What the fuck did I just read? Can you explain this to me?’ And I really enjoyed our conversation; we seemed to agree on a lot of things, and this was something I definitely wanted to be a part of, and a character I wanted to help develop.”
Michael Gingold has been part of the FANGORIA family since 1988, when he began writing for the magazine. He became associate editor in 1990, quickly moved up to managing editor and eventually became editor-in-chief, and was an editor and writer for the previous FANGORIA.com website. He also contributes to Rue Morgue, BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., MovieMaker and Scream, both in print and online, and has written liner notes, directed bonus features and taken part in audio commentaries for Blu-rays and DVDs from Arrow Video, Vinegar Syndrome, Synapse Films, Blue Underground, Garagehouse Pictures and others. He is the author of 1984 Publishing’s Ad Nauseam: Newsprint Nightmares from the 1980s, Ad Nauseam II: Newsprint Nightmares from the 1990s & 2000s and Ad Astra: 20 Years of Newspaper Ads for Sci-Fi & Fantasy Films, FAB Press’ FrightFest Guide to Monster Movies and Rue Morgue’s Shark Movie Mania.