SXSW 2022: ‘Master’ Reviewed – An Unsettling Psychological horror

by Gary Catig

Mariama Diallo is a writer/director who has developed shorts and worked on the sketch comedy show, Random Acts of Flyness. Her latest endeavor and debut feature, Master, is a psychological thriller that brings up unsettling situations centered around race.

The story revolves around three women at a prestigious private university in the north east region of the United States. The first is Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), an over achieving Black freshman who is assigned a dorm room rumored to be haunted. Professor Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) is the Master of a residence hall, the first Black woman to hold the position at the college. Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) is a fellow professor and colleague of Bishop in the middle of a tenure review. They all become intertwined as the dark history of the university is revealed.

The movie develops an unnerving tone throughout witnessing what the women have to endure from the microaggressions to the subtle differences in treatment. Shortly after we’re introduced to Jasmine, some upperclassmen literally whisper right in front of her and keep secrets. Adding to the uneasiness is the inopportune ringing of a mysterious bell in Gail’s home along with a segment of the college town’s population dressing and living their lives as if it were still the 17th century. Anyone would be proud to be a part of this fine institution of higher learning but somehow it doesn’t seem such a privilege for the three.

Already being on edge from the racial components makes the supernatural aspects more impactful. There are creepy moments for both Jasmine and Gail. Furthermore, their visions begin to blur the lines of reality as we weave back and forth between illusion and the actual world. This establishes a level of ambiguity questioning the validity of what they see or if they are the perceptions of people descending into madness. The tension never makes the viewer comfortable and makes them more inclined to contemplate the issues being addressed.

Master benefits from the performances of its stars. Renee embodies the optimistic young go getter ready to make the best of the opportunity before her. She makes it easy to be invested in her character and makes her descent that much more meaningful as she discovers the history of her haunted room. Gray intentionally gives off Rachel Dolezal vibes while in Hall, who is intertwined in the fates of the other two, wrestles with being supportive while maintaining the composure of someone in her position. Hall’s performance really stands out in the well shot ending sequence where Gail realizes how little progress her university has made in throughout its history.

The film is an unsettling cerebral horror that effectively utilizes the college campus setting to address issues on race in a more universal perspective.

Master can be currently seen on Prime Video.

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