Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman’s The Chair, one of the more written-about streaming series of 2021, had a lot going for it: hot-button topics (diversity and free speech on campus) handled with a light comic touch that promised not to burn, Sandra Oh in high dudgeon, David Duchovny playing himself as an aspiring professor with an extremely inflated sense of his literary acumen.
While the new college-set horror film Master covers some similar territory, it will not receive the same level of attention. Partly this is because writer-director Mariama Diallo has a more dire and less comedic outlook on the state of things. Also because people are generally less likely to pay serious attention to films where things go bump in the night.
Diallos’ film, which bolts together race-conscious academic satire and haunted-house narrative, is set at the fictional Ancaster College. A Northeast school “nearly as old as the country”, it is a picture-perfect expanse of brick and ivy complete with hallowed traditions, an Ivy League-adjacent reputation, vanishingly few students or faculty of color, and centuries of ugly undercurrents that never seem to go away. New student Jasmine (Zoe Renee) has barely arrived on campus when she discovers that her dorm room is the one the other students whisper about: Decades earlier, the school’s first black student had killed herself there.
Jasmine tries to blow off attempts by friends of her roommate Amelia (Talia Ryder)—a catty, snotty private-school pack who seem to have been lifted straight out of teen drama Pretty Little Liars and given a crash course in undermining the confidence of black students—to scare her. But soon the school’s spooky past starts to get to her. She might not necessarily believe the stories about Margaret Millett, the witch hung there back in 1694. As for that clammy corpse hand that comes up from under her bed to grasp hers, it is most likely a dream caused by all the stories she has heard.
But if that is the case, why does Jasmine keep waking up with bloody marks on her body? Also, why do some of the few black people on campus, like professor Liv (Amber Gray), seem to have it out for her while appearing to give all the white students a pass?
While Jasmine is questioning how much of what she is seeing is real, the university’s only other black professor, Gail (Regina Hall), is coming close to losing her mind as well. She has been given the honor of being Master of a residence hall, a prized post believed to be the stepping stone to school presidency (“should we call her Barack?” one of the white professors asks in an attempt at chummy humor). But the post, which comes with an elegant old house, turns out to be more a burden than a gift, since that house may come with a spirit who keeps ringing the bell in the creepy old servant’s quarters upstairs and visiting plagues of maggots on the apparently unwelcome new resident.
At the same time, Gail is conflicted over how much to support Liv’s tenure review. She is reluctant to play to her white colleagues’ expectations by automatically backing her tenure but also wants to support a black colleague in a passive-aggressively hostile environment.
One of the more reliable haunted house tropes is people trespassing in places that unquiet spirits have claimed as their own and will do just about anything to protect. Master draws heavily from that tradition but adds a real-world chill by making Jasmine and Gail’s nightmares seem to be about more than a restless ghost wanting them gone. When Jasmine discovers the word “Leave” carved into her dorm room door, there is also a noose hung around the doorknob.
In scene after scene, Diallo illuminates the chasm lying between the school’s well-marketed outward embrace of diversity—the heavy-on-tokenism “I am Ancaster” ad, and the egregiously performative student-faculty group which proclaims it is “blazing a new path towards radical inclusion” are both framed with cutting mockery—and the chilly manner with which it undercuts the confidence of any people of color who brave its environs. It is not just the witch’s spirit who seems uncomfortable with having Gail and Jasmine on campus. The film suggests quite bluntly that perhaps all of America is a haunted house.
At first, Diallo gets decent mileage out of goosing the story along with jumps and scares. These run the gamut from “who’s there?” creaking-floor spookiness to a cross burning on the school’s quad. The horror story aspects of the film are not especially original, largely because they do not need to be: A dark hooded figure suddenly looming out of the shadows works just about every time. But the more familiar horror staples that Diallo piles on—cemeteries at night, doors closing on their own, the cult-like townsfolk with their robes and baleful stares, intimations of Rosemary’s Baby-type situation—the less coherent that aspect of the film ultimately seems.
Far more well-honed is the academic satire (a disagreement between Jasmine and Liv about whether The Scarlet Letter can be studied through a critical race lens is especially smart) and the white campus’ overt yet insidious gaslighting of the black characters. The thicket of subtle microaggressions Jasmine and Gail have to wade through at Ancaster say far more about the sorry-not-sorry state of racial consciousness in places supposedly filled with allyship than Diallo’s more overt attempts to make the school a microcosm for the country.
Master is not the first film to use horror as a lens through which to understand racism in America and it will not be the last. It is also not the first or last film to add superfluous and not especially original genre elements onto a story that very simply did not need them.