Signal Horizon

See Beyond

Shudder Secrets: The Last Thing Mary Saw Explained: Calvinism, Occultism, and Religious Oppression

Shudder continues to start off 2022 strong. Their latest original film, The Last Thing Mary Saw, was a festival favorite last year, and for good reason. The 19th Century period piece is an especially haunting tale of occult horror. Oh, and it has one of the most inventive dinner/poisoning scenes that you’ll witness. Moreso, the film is a harrowing take on religious oppression, after two young lesbians face brutal punishments from a family who believes the Bible is the law. Anyone who the family deems different, straying from a righteous and Christian path, is an outcast, faced with severe consequences.

Written and directed by Edoardo Vitaletti, the Shudder original releases on January 20. This is one that you don’t want to miss.  It’s also a film that warrants some unpacking, so let’s dive in. Some spoilers are included below.


Set in 1853 in Household New York, the film’s narrative occurs just before the Industrial Revolution fully took hold. The older, stricter ways still endure.   The film opens with a quote from John Calvin. It reads, “All events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of god.” This sets the film’s stern tenor. Calvin, a 16th Century French theologian and one of the leaders of the Reformation, spawned ideas that eventually led to Calvinism. While there is a lot to Calvinism, in the context of The Last Thing Mary Saw, its emphasis on the sovereignty of god and the authority of the Bible are most important.

Mary’s family uses their reading of the Bible to dole out awful punishments to sinners. After the quote, the scene shifts to Mary (Stefanie Scott) reading from a non-religious text. The scene then cuts to the present. The book is shown again, dirty and soiled, as a deputy and sheriff examine it. Mary, blindfolded and bleeding from her eyes, faces a trial of men. Two of them point rifles at her. If she fails to recite the Lord’s Prayer, as asked, they’ll shoot her on the spot. The men are certain she’s evil. That would explain her reading of non-religious material and her love affair with Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman), a maid.

This opening is important because it shows the religious oppression and tyranny Mary suffers. She can’t read non-religious material, wander into the woods, or love who she wants. Yet, she insists on telling her story, even if she’s blind. Consider her a female version of Homer, perhaps! The events that unfold throughout the movie are Mary’s story. She’s given a voice even if the men deny her one within the narrative. The odd book is used to introduce each chapter within the film and the various “sins” Mary and others commit.

The Sins of Mary and Others

As already noted, Mary’s biggest sin is her attraction to Eleanor. They sneak away in the night and hide in a chicken coop. Their nightly meetings are discovered, and they’re made to kneel for hours, or worse. The sinister, nameless matriarch (Judith Roberts) oversees most of the punishments. Everything about Roberts’ performance terrifies. She steals each scene that she’s in. She’s a commanding force who administers the very worst punishments. In one hair-raising supernatural act, she strips Eleanor of her voice, after she catches Mary and the maid together.

Yet, Mary isn’t the only one punished by the Bible-thumping family. The guard, Theodore (P.J. Sosko), is another outcast for refusing to conform to the family’s rigid ways. They prevented him from leaving by beating and bruising his leg. At one point, he tells Mary, “Fear and weakness keep us here, not devotion.” Because he sees Mary and Eleanor as outsiders, he allows them to stay in the coop and refuses to rat them out. He also devises a plan to poison the family so he, Mary, and Eleanor can obtain freedom.

The Intruder and a Monsterous Birth

In another frightening performance, Rory Culkin plays a nameless “intruder.” Something seems off about him from the moment he arrives and interacts with the guard. Black clothing veils most of his body, including half of his face. He later reveals to Eleanor the hideous red mark on half his face. He explains that his mother took him to various doctors. The third doctor described a “monstrous birth,” meaning a mark a child wears if born out of wedlock. The doctor suggested killing the child and ushering in a “new heavenly kingdom.” Like Mary’s family, the doctor believed in superstition and religious rule. The intruder, however, stabbed his mother and threatened the doctor.

Everything about Culkin’s performance of this strange character chills. Unlike Theodore, Mary, or Eleanor, there’s nothing sympathetic about him. He indeed acts evil, sexually assaulting Eleanor and later seeking vengeance because she fought back.

The Matriarch’s Role

Though it’s never fully clear, the matriarch appears to have some connection to the intruder. After Mary and Eleanor attempt to poison her, she shows signs of life the moment the intruder arrives. Though she leads the family in prayer and punishment, her connection to the occult is evident. More than once, she shows flashes of the supernatural, even defying death. Eventually, Mary asks the intruder whose voice called him to the house. It’s indicated the matriarch and Culkin’s character are connected through some unseen force.

Like the intruder, the matriarch insists on punishing. The intruder sees it as a sort of trade, while the matriarch speaks of ushering in a “new kingdom.” Essentially, whatever force haunts the family, the matriarch appears connected to it, channels it, and perhaps even leads it.

The Power of the Book

The book frames the narrative and introduces three acts. It’s also symbolic of the ways Mary resists a tyrannical family, and it links her to Eleanor. They read it to each other as they hide out from the family’s fanatical eye.

However, at one point, the father confesses to bringing it into the house. He admits he knew it would cause evil and horror. So the book has a connection to the occult, and the chapter that’s the most recurrent, “The Old Lady of Bethabara,” tells the matriarch, Mary, and the maid’s story. When Mary reads from it, we learn about a noblewoman and a female servant who fell in love but faced severe and swift punishment when the old lady caught them. Sound familiar?

Yet, it’s unclear what kind of kingdom exactly the matriarch desires. Her actions are certainly un-Christian-like, and her connections to the book and intruder more than suggest her supernatural, witch-like qualities. There’s a hint that perhaps these powers will live on in Mary, though that’s never fully explored and one of the film’s only major gaps. Will the female line and feminine power survive? The final moments suggest it’s possible, even overcoming such intense religious oppression. Yet, here, the matriarch doesn’t use witchy powers for good. She blinds Mary, claims Eleanor’s voice, and acts as the family’s brute enforcer. If the feminine power does indeed live on, hopefully, it shifts as a force for good, liberation, instead of oppression. After all, that’s the point of Mary’s story.

Overall, The Last Thing Mary Saw is an assured, strong feature. It’s a moody, dimly lit film about religious oppression and persecution. The supernatural elements and delivery work well, too. However, the radical religious fanatics truly terrify. This is a movie about the danger of blind devotion to one’s faith.  You’ll find yourself rooting for the outsiders, like Mary, Eleanor, and Theodore. They’ll risk anything for a taste of freedom and to be who they want to be.

 For more on Shudder’s latest exclusive and original content, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column.