The second racially-charged Amazon Studios release at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Master is potent, twisty psychological horror. Led by a terrific cast, including Regina Hall and Zoe Renee, this slick slow-burn builds up a tangible atmosphere of racism and intensity. The darkness of the film’s thematic thrust may make audience members uncomfortable. For those who like their personal brand of horror more cerebral (think: Candyman, Get Out), Master will scratch that itch so deep, one will question whether the witch is in the room with you.
Even though Regina Hall’s character, Gail, promises “the only thing that will haunt you this year is that extra slice of pizza,” a sinister presence lurks in the halls of Ancaster College. Freshman Jasmine (Zoe Renee) feels anything but welcome after her first couple of days on campus. Her room is infamously haunted, her roommate Amelia is cold and judgmental, and a mysterious vendetta seems plotted against her, based merely on the color of Jasmine’s skin. The anniversary of the witch trials approaches with a furious energy…
Gail seems to be the only one Jasmine can turn to, but filling in her new role as Belleville house master, Gail has troubles all her own. The school makes a big hubbub about Gail’s brand new position. Uncovering the school’s dark past is a vital part of Gail’s role. Being one of the only black faculty members, Gail and up-for-tenure professor Liv (Amber Gray) must keep one another in check. Hearing Liv blatantly refer to the two of them as “house n-words” surprised me with its bluntness. It becomes clear instantly that Master is not interested in hand-holding or sugar-coating its layered messages about white supremacy.
The horrors here are nearly too numerous to count. Frat boys screaming racist lyrics at parties are cringe-worthy horror in their own way. Ancaster College is built on the bones of the Salem Witch trails, a fact Gail enthusiastically points out in her opening speech to the students. The school’s creepy legend ties right into this: Margaret Miller was hanged for witchcraft, and comes frequently to reclaim a freshman’s soul at exactly 3:33am. With imagery that immediately struck a chord, someone carves “LEAVE” into the door of Jasmine’s room, a hanging noose from the handle accompanying the garish message. An exchange with a black lunch lady who shoots Jasmine seriously nasty looks is an eye-opening juxtaposition at how the lunch lady treats her previous customer, a white woman. Nightmares bleed into reality, as Gail and Jasmine are haunted by the deep trauma of Ancaster’s sordid history.
Master dives into this trauma of an inescapable past. That it does so with visuals this vibrant and horrifying is a marvel. Maggots extruding from a portrait’s mouth, complete with a moth escaping out of the figure’s eye, sent a chill up my spine. The audience is also given burning crosses and vivid nightmares to color this world. Writer/director Mariama Diallo’s feature film debut is smart, creative, and deeply depressing.
What initially drew me to Master was the presence of Regina Hall, whose role as Brenda in the Scary Movie franchise remains one of my all-time favorite comedic performances. Dramatic actress Regina Hall is another beast entirely. The role of Gail is a perfect fit, allowing Hall to unleash the passionate fury of a woman scorned. The final act is that much more powerful thanks to Hall’s explosive performance. I loved the ending, when all the pieces finally fall into place. You cannot escape racism, “it’s everywhere.”
Master beckoned audiences to let out their own primal scream when it debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.