The powerful new horror movie Master opens with a pair of not-so warm welcomes. During orientation day at the prestigious Ancaster College, the bright Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is paired with the blasé Amelia (Talia Ryder) as roommates in a purportedly haunted dorm room. Across campus, professor and recently-appointed master of the storied Belleville House Gail (Regina Hall) struggles to open the front door to her new quarters. More generally, the specter of witchcraft-accused Margaret Millett from centuries ago looms over the school as students make up scary stories surrounding her myth. Amidst a student body and faculty with very few women of color, both Jasmine and Gail experience both subtle and overt forms of racism while the ghosts of Ancaster’s past grow into something even more tangibly terrifying.
Marrying the chilly campus creeps of The Blackcoat’s Daughter with the socially-conscious themes of Candyman, Master is utterly engrossing as goosebump-inducing horror and salient social commentary. In her first feature, writer/director Mariama Diallo captures the desperate sense of isolation felt by women who have a deep sense of unbelonging in their present setting. Amelia and other dormmates sardonically guess that Jasmine is either Beyoncé or Lizzo, while Gail is “complimented” by a fellow tenured professor through a comparison to Barack Obama. But these aren’t simply uncouth remarks by white folks who aren’t comfortable around their black counterparts. They’re products of a campus culture that has marginalized women and minorities decade after decade, where only the strongest survive.
Unfolding across six chapters, Master tragically details the hopelessness felt by its female characters as they fight back against systemic racism and oppression organized by the founders of the school centuries ago. The solution would seem to lie in communal unity and while Jasmine and Gail attempt to support one another in a symbiotic student-teacher relationship, Diallo introduces English professor Liv (Amber Gray) to show where things can get complicated. Straight-A student Jasmine is shocked when her first writing prompt from Liv’s class is met with a dreaded F grade, one that she plans to dispute with the university. Knowing such a move would derail Liv’s upcoming bid for tenure, Gail presses Jasmine to reconsider such a plan of action. Diallo plants these seeds of mistrust and division and expertly depicts how the tangled trees choke the potential for progress.
The messaging may come across as heavy-handed by those who are simply looking for a spooky movie to get under one’s skin but Master delivers on the horror front with some exceedingly well-edited sequences. It’s never a good sign for the main character of this sort of film to admit that they’re a sleepwalker but that’s exactly what Jasmine does in an early scene during a game of Never Have I Ever. Such a confession naturally yields some chilling nightmare sequences that incorporate sleep paralysis, a noose-carrying hooded figure and larger-than-life shadows that linger just a bit too long. Gail also contends with personifications of the rot within the Ancaster history that force her out of her new home to make way for pest control fumigation.
Master is often a very somber effort but there are a few satirical jabs in the vein of Dear White People that add a bit of levity while staying on point. The most notable of these is a fake ad for Ancaster, where Gail and Liv preach the ideals towards diversity for which the university strives, while the dean proclaims “the one thing that is not Ancaster is discrimination!” Such savvy comedic moments made Get Out a touchstone of black horror several years ago and could have potentially allowed this film to reach a wider audience but Diallo is intentional about her vision. This is a fittingly serious film about serious social subjects that require their time in the cultural conversation. It’s not always an easy watch but Master represents both the powerful storytelling potential of horror and the emergence of an exciting new voice within the genre.
Score – 4/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Lost City, an adventure comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum about a romance novelist on a book tour with her cover model as they get swept up in a kidnapping attempt that lands them both in a cutthroat jungle adventure.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is Infinite Storm, a survival thriller starring Naomi Watts and Billy Howle about a climber who encounters a stranded stranger during a blizzard as they journey to make it down the mountain before nightfall.
Screening at Cinema Center this Friday and Saturday is Mogul Mowgli, a music drama starring Riz Ahmed and Aiysha Hart about a British-Pakistani rapper who is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease before his first world tour.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup