The influential talons of The Witch have cast a long shadow in recent years. The potent blend of religious zealotry, occult horror, and period detail that hubbled and bubbled to such mesmerising effect in Robert Eggers’ instant classic has been imbibed vigorously, and is very much evident in Edoardo Vitaletti’s gloomily impressive debut feature. A restrained folk horror with storytelling almost as austere as its central family, The Last Thing Mary Saw is high on atmosphere and unease, but may be just a little too tasteful for its own good.

The Last Thing Mary Saw begins in media res as a young woman is interrogated by a constable about the mysterious death of her grandmother. The girl speaks calmly, and has an unnerving, serene air about her. Her calmness clashes violently with her appearance; blindfolded with the copious blood of some awful trauma crusted on her cheeks. She is Mary (Stefanie Scott), and she recounts the circumstances that led up to her arrest, her life with her puritanical family, her snatched moments of comfort in the arms of the housemaid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman).

The atmosphere of Vitaletti’s film burns gently, like the candles that are often the only source of light in David Kruta‘s elegant cinematography. This is occasionally at the cost of narrative clarity, and our engagement in the central characters. Scott and Fuhrman do an excellent job as Mary and Eleanor, but both girls remain somewhat gnomic. The scenes between the two illicit lovers are admirably devoid of salaciousness, but there’s a similar distance employed at the sadistic penances bestowed on them by Mary’s joyless Calvinist family. Vitaletti foregrounds his theme of the danger of knowledge – both esoteric and carnal – but it feels like the viewer is being kept from seeing, and feeling, too much.

Vitaletti’s restrained does allow for genuine unease to be wrung from little details, like the twitch of a finger or the guttering of a flame. In such febrile settings personality shines through. Judith Roberts as the family matriarch is gloriously unsettling, dominating every scene as she dominates her family. Her fundamentalism seems to be informed as much by an awareness of the subversive and demonic as it is by pure faith. Rory Culkin also has a brief, but arresting turn as a disfigured embodiment of male evil, posited as more straight-forward and vicious than the ‘left-hand path’ of feminine occultism.

One of the great developments in genre filmmaking recently has been the proliferation of female-centred horror that plays with faith, subversion, and identity in many different ways. The Last Thing Mary Saw is a worthy addition to the likes of The Witch, Saint Maud, and Midsommar, although it lacks the spark of individual inspiration that made those films great. It is nonetheless a very promising debut, with a bleak and claustrophobic sense of faith and evil irrevocably entwined in a dangerous helix.

Available on Shudder from Thu 20 Jan 2022