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‘Master’ Review: A socially-conscious horror misfire

'Master' - Mariama Diallo

The horror genre has long fed off the fears of modern life, with classics of the genre from John Carpenter’s Halloween to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook being inspired by the pervading anxieties of the contemporary zeitgeist. Such was accentuated upon the release of Get Out in 2017, Jordan Peele’s pertinent genre film that caused ripples throughout the industry and encouraged forthcoming releases to put a social message front and centre. 

Quite clearly inspired by the work of Peele, Mariama Diallo has imbued a similar style on her feature film debut, Master, featuring Regina Hall in a memorable dramatic role. Playing a lecturer at a predominantly white college in New England, Hall’s Gail Bishop becomes victim to a malevolent force that holds the black students and teachers of the school hostage in constant fear. 

Though Regina Hall’s character remains predominant throughout, it is Jasmine Moore who initially takes the reigns, playing Zoe Renee, a young black girl who has recently enrolled in the school. Moving into a dorm room that is perceived as haunted after a college-wide ‘joke’, she begins experiencing inexplicable instances of the paranormal whilst struggling to get to sleep due to sinister night terrors. 

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It’s an intriguing premise that initially has legs as the coming-of-age college tale is subverted and the experiences of the young girl are juxtaposed with that of Hall’s character who’s just starting a new position on the school grounds. Like two sides of the same coin, they interact well with each other’s stories and provide a strong basis for the film to flourish, only for it to never reach the potential that the introduction promises. 

Crawling to its second act and tiptoeing from beat to beat, sadly much of Mariama Diallo’s film is a painfully slow process as narrative beats are washed and recycled with little progress from scene to scene. With the knowledge that Renee is being tailed by a shadowed spectre, the film never teases the audience with compelling clues as to who or what the trickster may be until it is far too late. 

Whilst its intentions are clear, the film suffers from a lacklustre story and poor structure that fails to satisfyingly develop the two stories that ride tandem, with only the impressive performances of Regina Hall and Jasmine Moore tethering the film together. For all its good intentions and clear efforts, there is a far better film to be made here, with the building blocks already in place for success, it just needs a structural shakeup. 

Competently put together, Diallo certainly has potential in the horror genre, bringing impressive work in short film work to the fold with a couple of well-constructed sequences that prick up one’s ears and inspire genuine fear. Many of these moments seem to occur when the young lead character is caught between the unconscious and conscious worlds, experiencing strange creatures, unsettling faces and ethereal scenarios.

Not without merit, Mariama Diallo’s Master is a competent contemporary horror film, though lacks the assertion to pierce the social consciousness.

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