When a fancy university is built in the shadow of the Salem witch trials, old habits die hard.

Master (2022 movie)

At Master's fictional Ancaster College — nearly as old as America itself, we hear — the air is chokingly elitist: imposing stone cathedrals of higher learning, slanted ceilings, and plenty of places to feel dwarfed by history. (Vassar serves nicely for this Northeastern's Ivy's exteriors.) Writer-director Mariama Diallo, herself a Yale grad, invents Ancaster, a place that didn't need inventing, for her creepy, accomplished, never-less-than-memorable feature debut, both an indictment of racist institutions and a horror movie in the vein of Get Out and Candyman.

Yet Diallo, an inspired stylist with bold things to say, strikes the balance between thrills and ills in a way that's wholly her own. Campus-set bloodfests — from Black Christmas and the original Creepshow to The House of the Devil — always hide a certain ingrained meanness within their hallowed halls, but Master's ear and eye for real-world snubs grounds it in a viciousness that feels keenly lived. And when the scares do come, Diallo pulls them off with a panache that reveals her taste for the smart stuff.

At first, the aggressions, both micro and macro, would appear to fall squarely on the head of Jasmine (Jinn's Zoe Renee, affectingly vulnerable), an incoming Black student at a school that's overwhelmingly white. Her new dormmate greets her with a flinch ("You scared me"), and not only does Jasmine have to cope with snide British girls named Cressida, but her room may be haunted by a suicide from decades ago: a bullied victim who, convinced a witch was stalking her, hung herself at exactly 3:33 am.

Sundance Film Festival Preview
Regina Hall in 'Master'
| Credit: Sundance Institute

Feeling the unease as well, though, is longtime faculty member Gail (Regina Hall, whose invigorating sharpness makes her this movie's Toni Collette). She's forced to deal with mysteriously jammed locks on her residence, squinty looks of bored entitlement from students, and — not to put too fine a point on it — maggots. They plague her kitchen drawers and pour out of an oil portrait meant to celebrate her. (Master is the finest opportunity for grub worms since Dario Argento's Suspiria, also about a witchy academy and a welcome influence.)

Diallo sharpens her drama of a thousand cuts into a full-on spike: Jasmine, increasingly obsessed with the dead girl's diary, graduates from getting suspicious you're-not-welcome scowls in the library to filing a formal dispute against a star professor in braids and African prints (Amber Gray) who flunks her for failing to distill a racial reading from The Scarlet Letter. Meanwhile, Gail parries with the tenure committee and her colleagues, all of whom seem to view her as an exotic creature despite her accomplishments.

It doesn't quite sound like straight-up horror, but Diallo shoots it like such (the crisp camerawork, which makes room for lingering dread, is by Charlotte Hornsby), and by the time we reach the Thanksgiving break — Ancaster emptied out into an abstract scare zone — Master has built to a crescendo, as has composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe's synth-damaged score. Even as Diallo deploys a few artful red-tinted nightmares, you'll be more shaken by the staredown between Jasmine and a cafeteria worker thrown off her happy routine, a mini-movie that deserves its own unpacking.

After such a careful build, there's the slightest sense of letdown when a wow of a revelation doesn't quite pay off; it's followed by some regrettably on-the-nose summing up. You're expecting more of a horror beat to go out on, but for Diallo, the horror is that things will just continue as before. Any tale set at a place like Ancaster, its hateful baubles still gathering dust on shelves, would need to resemble some kind of ghost story. In Master (which begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video March 18), the ghosts are alive and well. They're not even ghosts. Grade: A-

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Master (2022 movie)
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