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Saturday, January 22, 2022

[Sundance Review] ‘Master’ Casts a Bewitching Occult Tale of Academia and Social Critique

The prestigious halls of the New England set Ancaster College harbors a curse. Upper-level students scare first-year students with stories of a witch once hung there whose ghost returns every year to claim a victim on the anniversary of her death. Writer/Director Mariama Diallo uses that curse to connect the past to the present, blending a variety of terrors, real and imagined, all funneled through the lives of three women. Master casts a bewitching spell of occult and psychological horror, underscoring the true source of fear in a potent way.

New freshman Jasmine (Zoe Renee) gets assigned the ill-fated dorm room 302, the legendary room haunted by the ghost of Margaret Millett. Margaret is the least of Jasmine’s problems, though, as she struggles socially and academically. Even her professor, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), isn’t much help, though Liv has problems of her own trying to fight for tenure among her peers. Then there’s Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), the school’s first Black Master of residence, who seeks to prove herself despite the tokenism placed upon her by colleagues. It’s through Gail that Jasmine and Liv’s stories intersect, though all consistently face microaggressions, social pressures, and identity challenges in a historically all-white setting.

Diallo’s deft layering of supernatural chills with historical terror and realism makes for a compelling experience that pulls you into the interior lives of these women. Jasmine is plagued by night terrors, visions of clawed hands that emerge from under the bed, or portraits of founding fathers that decay in a blink. There’s no reprieve for her in waking hours either, thanks to academic pressures and classmates who treat her as a novelty or inferior. Gail fares no better, caught between trying to help Liv and Jasmine and trying to appease the school panel that promoted her. She, too, gets inundated with the occult and reality-based nightmares. Her ghosts are similar but separate from Jasmine’s.

The style in capturing the increasingly dense mythology is impeccable. The eerie red glow of the stately dorm halls provides stunning but creepy visual interest. Diallo demonstrates a keen eye for composition and an ability to instill an unsettling atmosphere with ease. Outside of smart scare-crafting and haunting aesthetics, what impresses most is just how much this feature debut balances in social commentary. At least, for the most part.

Master is masterful for much of its runtime, but it struggles to tie all three converging plotlines together in a wholly satisfying way. There’s too much story ground to cover, making for a rather abrupt conclusion to at least one of the three central plotlines. It causes a loss of otherwise laser focus. Diallo does at least succeed in driving her messaging home, and its intended emotional impact sticks its landing. That’s owed to the powerful performances; Renee and Hall are phenomenal in their layered roles.

The recurring imagery of Margaret Millett’s ghostly noose serves as the perfect metaphor for Master. Darkness slowly closes around Jasmine, Gail, and Liv, causing them to struggle for air in a claustrophobic and hostile environment. Even if it doesn’t entirely stick its landing, it’s the precise type of intelligent, creepy, and complex horror that makes Diallo one to watch.

Master releases globally on Prime Video on March 18, 2022.


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