“Good Madam” is a tight, lightly-chilling horror tale from South Africa, a parable of a housekeeper and what “life in service” can mean, in a supernatural sense, in the former Apartheid state.
And how this relatively simple story has twelve listed screenwriters may be the ultimate example of sharing the credit in what is always described as the ultimate “collaborative” art form.
Tsidi (Chumisa Casa) and her little girl Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) have just shown up at the door of the elderly, wealthy woman her mother works for. Tsidi, who was raised by her grandmother, was forced out of the house by greedy, manipulative family members when she died. As her baby daddy (Khanyiso Kenqa) is an undependable lump, mother Mavis, “Sisi” (Nosipho Mtebe) is who she turns to.
She and her mother aren’t close, and the reason is as obvious as the first ting-a-ling of the bell that elderly Diane summons Mavis with. Mavis couldn’t get away to attend her own mother’s funeral.
As we see her 60ish mother on her knees, scrubbing floors, teetering on step stools to dust light fixtures and hear her mother sternly remind her daughter of “the house rules,” we get a bad feeling about what’s going on here. This is something beyond the whitewashed version of such relationships — “devotion.” Tsidi says the obvious out loud.
“She has you living under Apartheid!”
But mother-daughter quarrels and flashbacks to the testy family meeting that cost Tsidi her home are just sideshows. As she pokes around the house, things start to happen. That husky who stuck his head in the door and gave her a look?
“Oh, he died years ago.”
When Winnie notices her mother turning paranoid and obsessed, Mom’s words of comfort are no comfort at all.
“It seems this house doesn’t like Mama.”
Director and co-writer (with many others) Jenna Cato Bass saves most of the jolts here for the third act. The patient pacing means we’re allowed plenty of time to wonder who or what and in what form the “Good Madam” is behind that locked bedroom door, which neither Tsidi nor Winnie should ever attempt to open.
“Rules of the house,” remember.
The dialogue, in English or Xhosa (play it with closed captioning on), is spare and often argumentative. Piecing together relationships and the final twists requires your undivided attention.
But the story has hints of Edgar Allan Poe and other masters of horror about it, and is clever enough to be well worth a look, no matter how many credited screenwriters it took to come up with it and polish into the production screenplay.
Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Chumisa Casa, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu and Khanyiso Kenqa
Credits: Directed by Jenna Cato Bass, scripted by Babalwa Baartman, Jenna Cato Bass, Chumisa Cosa, Chris Gxalaba, Khanyiso Kenqa, Steve Larter, Sizwe Ginger Lubengu, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, Siya Sikawuti, Peggy Tunyiswa. A Shudder release.
Running time: 1:32