Studio: RLJE Films
Director: Michael Goi
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
Producer: Tucker Tooley, Scott Lambert, Alexandra Milchan, Scott Lumpkin, Earl Mason McGowin
Stars: Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Stefanie Scott, Chloe Perrin, Douglas Urbanski, Claire Byrne, Jennifer Esposito, Owen Teague
Paranoia and possession plague a seafaring family after they purchase a mysterious boat connected to a witch’s curse.
In the midst of repairing his marriage following his remorseful wife Sarah’s affair, David decides to take on a second restoration project. The Coast Guard recently recovered a derelict sailboat adrift in the ocean and its 100-year-old siren masthead entrances David at an auction. He can’t really afford the six-figure fee on a tour boat captain’s salary. But David still sees the ship as the fresh start he desperately desires for his family. Cue the musical montage of sanding and smiling as David and Sarah, their two daughters, and two deckhands rebuild ‘Mary’ for a trip to Bermuda.
The six of them aren’t at sea long when strangeness sets in. Sarah endures recurring nightmares of ghoulish hands grabbing her. Her youngest daughter gains an imaginary friend, which is never a good sign for any fright film family. Then one of the shipmates enters a trance of possession involving a knife, a noose, and mutterings about a mysterious “she” who wants to make the two children her own.
Records reveal every captain who commanded Mary ended up losing a child before wrecking in the Devil’s Triangle. Grieving widows blamed their misfortunes on a witch’s curse. Sarah sees reason to believe it too. Like a typical horror movie husband, David dismisses his wife’s worries as hysterical delusions. He’ll soon see the terrible truth as his haunted home away from home continues to target his family for terror.
“Mary” the movie doesn’t stop at the disbelieving husband and little kid speaking to shadows as it coughs up commonplace chiller clichés. It also opens at the end of the story, giving us the upfront courtesy of identifying that Sarah and the two girls survive while David and the two men don’t. “Mary” brings me no closer to understanding why anyone chooses to frame a film as a flashback. Knowing the outcome in advance instantly saps all suspense in subsequent scenes where Sarah becomes trapped in a crawlspace or nearly drowns underwater. “Mary,” you do remember you already told us she isn’t in danger of dying, right?
“Mary” seems to have done this simply to set up one final “shock” that probably could have come about chronologically anyway. Regardless, the price paid to acquire an end credits stinger comes with a steep tradeoff in deflated tension during the preceding 80 minutes.
I wonder if these wraparound scenes, which feature a special agent of some sort questioning Sarah about what happened aboard the boat, were added after the fact. Maybe one of the dozen or so people with “producer” in their titles felt the film needed more padding, more explanatory narration between scenes, or a way to squeeze in Jennifer Esposito so there could be one more notable name for the title block.
This isn’t the only time a creative conflict comes about when the right hand doesn’t realize what the left hand is doing. “Mary” means to stoke some sense of isolating claustrophobia and cabin fever craziness by being set on a confined ship stranded in an unforgiving sea. Then characters have several knock-down, drag-out shouting matches that no one else ever seems to hear, thereby expanding the boat’s size to massive proportions in your mind. Staging regularly butts head with the boat’s blueprint, which bulges and shrinks according to a specific scene’s needs.
“Mary” makes its mood from an extraordinary amount of slow creeps. Characters cautiously creep toward odd sounds and odder visions. The camera creeps into corners hiding predictable jump scares. “Slow burn” suspense is one thing. Slow moving everything is another.
The mostly unseen witch at the core of the horror barely comes with a backstory, so there isn’t a whole lot of context to her curse. A research session montage tells of the three crews that came before the current one, but remains light on the who, why, or how of the haunting. In the absence of explanation, we end up with a bunch of entranced people mumbling cryptic warnings or momentarily performing off-kilter actions that have no motivated reason to scare us. The movie makes up some of that difference by falling back on more than one dream sequence so it can actually work in a visible monster. If you want more tangible terror than that, you’d better board a different boat.
I don’t know why Academy Award winner Gary Oldman would sign on for a tapioca pudding thriller founded on familiar formula. Maybe he wanted a lighter gig that didn’t demand the emotional effort of embodying a complicated historical figure. Maybe spending x weeks on a boat off the coast of Alabama sounded more appealing than eight-hour days in a makeup chair.
Whatever spurred Oldman’s decision, it’s a good thing he said yes. The same goes for Emily Mortimer.
With “Mary,” Oldman and Mortimer demonstrate how exceptional actors can make serviceable material seem juicier than it is. Essentially working blindfolded with one hand tied behind their backs, the two talents expertly wring real personalities out of otherwise dry characterizations. They don’t deliver straight lines like ordinary actors. Words come from thought, not just mouths, accompanied by tics, quivers, and gestures delivering a third dimension to a movie that needs their nuance.
“Mary” is lucky to have Oldman and Mortimer, which means the audience reaps their benefits too. Together they keep this voyage from being a bland bust.
DTV horror movies starring Oscar winners bypass theaters for a reason. Stating the obvious, the reason isn’t because they are too highbrow, too marketable, or too “good” for a multiplex.
“Mary” merely makes sense as VOD filler. It’s well shot, very well acted, and efficiently edited for leanness. It’s so lean that it slips in one ear and right out the other as another average assembly line production. You’d probably forget about it after a few days if Gary Oldman and Emily Mortimer weren’t so competently steering a so-so ship that’s barely big enough to carry the weight they bring to their roles.
Review Score: 55