The setting in Mariama Diallo’s psychological horror film Master is one of those blue blood Northeastern colleges that has the audacity to scoff at Harvard as someone’s second collegiate choice. The dorm rooms resemble cozy apartments and the faculty live in large, antique houses just off campus. Needless to say, the climate of tolerance and welcoming vibes are stacked against young Jasmine (Zoe Renee) immediately. African-American and 3000 miles away from her Tacoma, Washington family, things get even dicier when her designated room is said to be haunted by a witch that chooses a freshman every year to murder and drag to hell. So much for freshman jitters.
Things aren’t any easier for dorm master Gail (Regina Hall). Aware that something is amiss at the school and recognizing the difficult time young Jasmine is having, she’s also receiving disturbing phone calls that hint at something sinister. But the horror Gail experiences isn’t quite like the students. Her’s is a more internalized awakening about her less-than status at a place that is more white-bred than the diversity advertisements state. Within this cycle of self doubt and subtle racism, Master spins a horror film as both Jasmine and Gail try and deal with their various semesters.
And I use the term horror loosely. While there are stretches of terror- the most racking being the first one as an arm reaches out slowly from underneath a bed- one gets the feeling that Diallo is much less interested in that tangent of storytelling. It could even be called extraneous. These scenes, often emanating from the nightmares Jasmine is experiencing, actually work against the narrative. Hall and Renee give good performances, but the real unsettling aspects don’t come from its atmospheric jump scares, but the wounded reactions that Jasmine shares with her room mate (Talia Ryder) or the explosive frustration given off by Gail in the film’s denouement. I’ve always thought the real horrors of the world we go through everyday are no match for make believe ones.
In opposition to Jasmine’s displaced feelings, Gail should be more in control. But, as an African-American woman also (and touted as the first one to be a house master), Regina Hall plays Gail as firm but simmering below the surface, especially when she stumbles into the fact that a fellow teacher (Amber Gray) may not be who she claims. Like Jasmine, she faces an uphill battle of race and gender that seems insurmountable in their current climate of privileged existence.
Within these two people- young Jasmine and master Gail- the film studies ideas of hierarchy and status, institutionalized racism, and the simple confusion of trying to make one’s own way through the world.
It’s in these terms of metaphorical social change that Master really excels. I almost wish it left off the horror aspect completely as that portion of the story actually feels less interesting than anything else. Regardless, Master at least tries to address real topics under the guise of genre, and it more often succeeds than not.
Master opens in select theaters in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday March 18th. It premiers on Amazon Prime the same day.