Mary can no longer see: her eyes are covered by a blindfold, blood is dripping from her sockets on to her cheeks. With this chilling image the movie begins; but only at the end do we learn how Mary has been blinded – and what she saw. Though by this point, there are cracks in the icy mood of this austere, slow-paced horror.
It is set in 1840s rural New York where the story unfolds in flashback, claustrophobically confined to a single house. Young Mary (Stefanie Scott) has been caught in flagrante with the family’s maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman) and her God-fearing parents inflict “correctional” punishment on the girls: forcing them to kneel painfully on rice for hours. This all feels a bit familiar: fire-and-brimstone preaching; evil done in the name of our Lord; puritanical starched collars and severe hair partings. But first-time director Edoardo Vitaletti really stokes up the menace. Cinematographer David Kruta lights faces by candle; there are images here with the richness of portraits, characters’ eyes glistening with malignant fervour.
The family plan is to separate Mary and Eleanor, sending the maid away. But the girls are defiant. Mary plots revenge, lips twisted into a malicious smile. But this relationship at the heart of the movie fails to convince. These two girls are supposed to be fired up on me-and-you-against-the-world teenage love, but the chemistry is a bit underwhelming. And I must say, my tolerance for seeing women and girls abused on screen is at an all-time low.
Stealing the film is Judith Roberts as Mary’s grandmother, named in the credits as the Matriarch, and possibly the source of actual ungodly acts. A terrific horror-movie villain, she is an evil Miss Havisham, with a coquettish smile and beady evil eyes. The trouble with the film is that beneath the surface lurks … well, perhaps not quite enough to keep the momentum going.