Mood and message are paramount in Amazon Studios’ “Master,” a tale of institutional racism masquerading as a horror-on-campus thriller, instead of the other way around.
First-time writer-director Mariama Diallo goes for a “Get Out” parable, wound up in the ingrained racism of brick and ivy academia. And if her reach exceeds her grasp, it’s still a thought provoking drama that doesn’t quite cut it as a thriller.
Reginal Hall (“Girl’s Trip”) is Gail Bishop, the first African American house “Master” at storied Ancaster College. She’s a tenured professor climbing that last rung on the college’s ladder, not merely teaching classes but presiding over, guiding and advising the young ladies of Belleville Hall.
One of those coeds is Jasmine (Zoe Renee, graduating from TV’s “The Quad”), a wide-eyed African American freshman over-achiever from the West Coast.
Jasmine arrives to the news — perhaps just a form of hazing — that she and her roommate (Talia Ryder) are bunked in a haunted room. Somebody there died. There’s this tradition of a “witch trial” victim who roams the campus, picking “one freshman every fall” to be dragged by her “to Hell.”
“You’re gonna have to try a lot harder than that to scare me.”
But Jasmine and we can see that surface acceptance might be the best she can hope for from the skinny, partying fashion statements (Anna van Patten, Ella Hunt, Noa Fisher) of roomie Amelia’s circle.
Her first test academically comes from an American lit professor (Amber Grey) striving for tenure, who wears her hair in statement-braids and sees everything through the lens of race. Her bond to the “first Black master” at the college is of an “us sisters are an endangered species on this campus” variety.
All of the women are struggling to “belong” and fit-in, with Amber coping with youthful uncertainty about her mores — “never have I ever” games, alcohol-soaked parties, privileged come-ons from the college hunk (Will Hoffman) — if not her academics.
If Jasmine doesn’t think there’s a “race” angle in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” “it’s not there,” no matter what her professor insists.
Gail finds herself the minefield as her colleagues — Talia Balsam plays the department chair, Bruce Altman a tenured liberal college who must have grown up never knowing any Black folks — pick thei words carefully around her, struggling to avoid saying the wrong thing. They can’t help but treat her as a “token” in their ranks.
And both Gail and Jasmine are spooked by apparitions, spectral shadows and random encounters with the very old Puritan-dressed (Mennonites?) community outside the exclusive college’s hallowed walls. Jasmine is particularly rattled as her sleep disorders give her vivid nightmares and make her wonder just how supportive that roommate and those classmates are.
Diallo introduces a lot of ideas, which she wrestles with for long stretches until she recalls that this is supposed to be a horror movie. Thus we get another Jasmine nightmare, another creepy walk or jog in the dark with Gail.
There are moments that play as alarming, but the players make it a reach to believe that any of these women seem all that scared by what is happening or what they think is happening to them.
Everybody’s much more concerned with what this story is “saying.” Situations, shot selection, characters and those playing them easily get across the idea that each feels “targeted” on this campus — a furtive scowl from the otherwise-outgoing dining hall matron, the dream-or-not-a-dream admission from Amelia that “I hate you” that Jasmine is sure she heard.
Snatches of dialogue like that become Diallo’s somewhat arbitrary, self-conscious and pointless “chapter” titles on this stroll through college rites of passage and supposed chills.
Everything here is borrowed from scores of other movies — the witching hour at “3:33 am,” the research into the libraries old newspapers and school archives to figure out the earlier victims of “this witch” or whatever is going on here.
At some point, blunt statements of what this is all about and a “stolen from the headlines” cultural appropriation accusation are shoehorned in. But “Master” never shakes the feeling that we’re seeing a collection of tropes and ideas that never come together in a coherent narrative.
The “message” comes through loud and clear, but the film feels like an assignment.
“Film us a ‘Get Out’ in academia, and be sure to cover X, Y and Z”. As a filmmaker Diallo never lets us forget she’s checking off boxes on her class essay’s list of required topics and tropes.
Rating: Rated R for language and some drug use.
Cast Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Anna van Patten, Noa Fisher, Talia Balsam, Bruce Altman and Amber Grey.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Mariama Diallo. An Amazon Studios release on Amazon Prime.
Running time: 1:38