There are too many misfires in “Master” that prevent it from achieving its true potential. The premise is compelling, the acting and directing is solid, but the finished product is a disappointing reminder of what it could have been.
Professor Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) has recently been promoted to Master of a residence hall at the elite New England university, Ancaster College. It’s the first time in the institution’s history that a black woman has held the post. Living amongst a mostly white student body, Gail takes a special interest in a smart, black Freshman named Jasmine (Zoe Renee). On her first day on campus, the young woman is assigned the college’s notorious haunted dorm room, a place where a black woman killed herself decades ago. As the days progress, the women discover the real horror at Ancaster is the racism hiding beneath the surface — and also in plain sight.
It’s a thought-provoking premise, and writer-director Mariama Diallo (in her debut feature film) sets up the story well. She expresses the characters’ horror through foreboding, creepy visions which are effective, but they feel as if they belong in a more traditional horror movie. Making this into a genre film that ties racism to elements of the occult doesn’t translate as well as it could, making some of the more traditional jump-and-scream elements feel unnecessary and out of place.
The social critique of the power of ingrained racism, including the discouraging conclusion that nothing is ever going to change, is conveyed well — even if the film makes its point repeatedly.
The idea of racial terror as an evil force is a sophisticated idea, but the familiar, rubber-stamp slasher tropes are not. The horror angle (complete with witches and shadowy figures under the bed) seems ill-suited to the significance of the subject matter, and that’s a big reason why “Master” is ultimately disappointing.
By: Louisa Moore