By: Kayla Caldwell
MASTER, the feature film debut for writer/director Mariama Diallo is social horror at its finest. Everything on the Ancaster campus is old, from the buildings to the traditions, and the views of the predominantly white campus. The way Diallo crafts the horror and suspense while also making you think is reminiscent of Remi Weekes' gem, His House.
MASTER follows Gail Bishop, played brilliantly by Regina Hall, who has just become the first Black "House Master" at New England University, Ancaster. In her new position, she meets freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), who is struggling, from issues with Professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), and profiling in the campus library, to being assigned to live in an infamously haunted dorm room.
The two women are simultaneously finding it difficult to feel welcomed and at home on this old-fashioned campus. The deeper we venture into the story, the further the two characters descent into paranoia and fear. You know that anxious feeling you get in your gut when something just feels wrong? Prepare to feel that for about an hour and a half, when you watch MASTER. The vibe is almost suffocatingly tense, but in the best way. Diallo knows how to really build the tension. She masterfully weaves the supernatural with real-life horror, like microaggressions.
MASTER is not the kind of film where, by the roll of the credits, the issues have been resolved, and the killer caught, etc. It's more about sitting in stressful feelings, and forcing yourself to confront these issues of discrimination and prejudice that regularly occur. Hall's performance is so authentic and heartbreaking. You watch her put on a smile and nod when her white coworkers compliment her on what a big deal it is to become House Master. Sure, their words are technically kind, but the implication is a lot more sinister and patronizing.
The visuals are unsettling, from the gothic architecture of the college buildings to eerie paintings of the old, white founders of the university with eyes that appear to be following you. There is much to be said about the symbolism of MASTER, as well as the way Diallo uses the supernatural to make a statement on the constant dread relating to the deep-seated racism in this country. However, as a white critic, it does not feel like my place to do so. [Note: I recommend the wonderfully-written review by Ashleeta Beauchamp on our sister site, Nightmarish Conjurings, that I will link here. It's well worth a read.]
MASTER has plenty of classic horror thrills, and, in fact, the deeper meaning relating to real-life horrors makes the film even more chilling. It's unnerving, but so well done that it stays in your head long after you've viewed it for the first time. And I say "first," as there are likely to be many more.
MASTER is streaming now on Prime Video.