When Emily Mortimer says, “Evil needs a body to exist. The body was that boat,” it’s just the first of numerous unsayable lines in “Mary.” This tale of nautical terror is one leaky vessel, despite veteran cinematographer Michael Goi’s professionally competent direction and a cast (also including Gary Oldman) well-equipped to handle more challenging, as well as more intelligent, material. RLJE Films is releasing it on 25 U.S. screens simultaneous with on-demand and digital HD this Friday. It should do OK as a formulaically forgettable home-entertainment option.
That first dialogue pearl occurs as a federal investigator (Jennifer Esposito) is interviewing Sarah Greer (Mortimer), who was found floating on debris off the Florida coast. Her two daughters are also safe, having been rescued from a lifeboat. But the sailing ship they were on, the Mary, has vanished — as well as other persons on board. Despite her apparent state of trauma, Sarah explains what happened “from the beginning,” triggering a feature-length flashback.
Four months earlier in Georgia, the Greers were struggling to make ends meet when fishing-tour guide David (Oldman) heard of a decrepit boat found abandoned at sea. Taking a gamble, he commits to buying and fixing it up to start his own excursion business, which would hopefully brighten the family’s financial picture. Much collective labor later, the Mary is ready for an inaugural voyage. All aboard are the couple, teenage daughter Lindsey (Stefanie Scott) and a younger offspring named Mary (Chloe Perrin). There’s also non-blood-related crew in the form of easygoing first mate Mike (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and deckhand Tommy (Owen Teague), an at-risk youth David has mentored some years, and who’s secretly edging toward romance with same-aged Lindsey.
Despite the fact that they’re sailing straight into the fabled “Bermuda Triangle” of mysterious ship disappearances, things go well enough at first. But by turns everyone here starts acting strangely, with little Mary and her creepy crayon drawings the first to sour. Individuals begin having nightmares, then Tommy has a psychotic (or perhaps possessed) episode so severe he has to be offloaded at the next port. A few other disturbing instances occur before Sarah discovers old newspaper clippings suggesting a lengthy history of sinister misfortunes apparently linked by this ship, and/or some malevolent presence that has attached itself to it. Needless to say, things only get worse, and climactic struggles take place during a storm.
There seems to be some sort of sea-hag spirit behind it all, one that Goi ties visually to the much older-looking carved female figurehead at the bow of the approximately 50-year-old ship. She’s bad news, but that’s about as much intel as we get. Beyond de rigueur jump scares, “Mary” has little real atmosphere or suspense, and that is at least partly due to the fact that its supernatural force is so generically ill-defined. There’s no rhyme or reason to what she/it can or cannot do, nor to her methodology in attacking those aboard. Eventually the film simply amps up the yelling and hysteria, lacking any more effective means of conveying acute crisis.
Though it doesn’t quite reach the 78-minute mark before final credits, “Mary” somehow still seems long enough to plod at times. There’s just not much cause for enthusiasm in the pedestrian screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski (whose prior aquatic thriller “The Shallows” and landbound “Kristy” deployed even simpler story concepts to better effect), and you can sense both the director and cast trying to do their best while remaining unconvinced such effort won’t be fruitless. They’re right about that, particularly in some “Yaaar, I’m evil now!!!” moments that the performers cannot save from a briny whiff of unintentional comedy.
Shot in (and off) Alabama by Goi himself, the film has a pro sheen in all tech/design departments, though no stylistic idiosyncrasies that might have given the material at least a passing lift.