There is something inherently unsettling about an elite university’s aura of vanity. Few other contemporary locations summon such a sense of reverence, exclusivity and historical angst — especially if the college is somewhere in brisk New England and adorned with the Ivy League distinction. Through an unnerving blend of supernatural horror and psychological drama, fiercely talented writer-director Mariama Diallo’s debut feature “Master” reflects on the roots and customs of one such illustrious school of eerily beautiful stone buildings and handsomely dim, wood-heavy chambers. It’s a fictional prototype called Ancaster, erected near where the Salem witch trials were once carried out. Diallo knows exactly what makes the grounds and hallways of these often lily-white institutions spine-tingling as she dissects their historical footprint, real and imagined, through the ghosts of those who left it.
The result is a stylish, sometimes terrifying genre film that shares DNA with Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman,” and likewise has much on its mind around intersectional notions of race, class and gender, with their past and present echoes. Not all of Diallo’s thematic queries land, and at times, she weakens her ideas by over-explaining them. Nevertheless, her fearless interrogation resonates like a penetrating scream you can’t unhear.
The filmmaker establishes Ancaster’s ghostly atmosphere early on, with the arrival of eager, accomplished freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee, memorably haunted and steadfast). Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s chilling score accompanies her when she finds out upon check-in that she’s got “the room.” Uh-oh! But before we can find out why her dorm is labeled with such a cagey, “Shining”-style warning, Jasmine meets her roommate Amelia (the terrific Talia Ryder, of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), with whom she won’t exactly see eye-to-eye.
Through thoughtful parallel editing by Jennifer Lee and Maya Maffioli, we also follow seasoned faculty member Gail Bishop (Regina Hall, commanding with her signature calm resolve), as she unlocks the jammed doors of her new residence elsewhere on campus. It comes with a hellish, squeaky attic of bedsheet-covered dusty artifacts and, as a result, many sleepless nights. Still, having been freshly inaugurated as the first black Master of the college, a role closely in charge of student life, she feels a sense of pride settling in, uncanniness be damned.
Adopted long ago from elite British universities like Oxford and Cambridge, that title is a controversial hot potato in the States, where “Master” carries troubling racist connotations dating back to the slavery era. (Some schools like Harvard belatedly parted ways with the term only a few years ago.) Throughout the film, Diallo smartly plays with and dismantles the word’s ramifications. While Gail wears her hard-earned status on her sleeve, inviting students to see her as a confidante, countless microaggressions are carried out under her nose. For starters, Amelia and her predominantly white crew casually disrespect Jasmine in various prickly episodes — using her room uninvited for nighttime parties, refusing to pay her for the pizza she bought for everyone, racially stereotyping her background, you name it.
Yet the anxious Jasmine tries to claim her place and identity in her new school anyway. Toggling between her natural hair and a straightened ‘do, she strives to both stand out and blend in while navigating frequent nightmares (or are they real?) and freaky sleepwalking incidents. Meanwhile, surrounded by a predominantly white faculty, the growingly alienated Gail doesn’t seem content in her new placement either. Who could, in a school that tries to put on a sham liberal face via deficient initiatives like a cringe-inducing diversity recruitment video? Through various parties and social gatherings alike, we separately observe Gail and Jasmine in situations that look nearly as intolerable as the auction party of “Get Out.”
Amid all this, a third character seizes the story. With her long braids and spirited sartorial choices that embrace African prints, literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) looks like the polar opposite of her friend, the more conservatively styled Gail. But despite her freely outspoken demeanor, Liv doesn’t have it easy either. Slim on published work, secretive about her mysterious background and seeking tenure at the grueling university, she is confronted by a dispute Jasmine files against her due to a failing grade. Is the professor really targeting the straight-A Jasmine for some cryptic grudge, or is Jasmine’s paper on “The Scarlet Letter” and race really that lacking? Are these women haunted simply by the ingrained racism as old as the land they stand on, or is there another menacing force out there?
Embellishing this intriguing, multi-pronged narrative, Diallo elevates the tension through Charlotte Hornsby’s eerily textured cinematography. Images of a gross-out infestation, a witch’s crusty hand emerging from under a bed and colonial-garbed people circling the dark campus all contribute to this escalation. After some time, however, one senses that while the film’s frights are effective on their own, they are perhaps a little detached from the bigger picture, loosening the filmmaker’s disciplined handle on the material. Elsewhere, “Master” seems reluctant to bring the Jasmine-Amelia saga to an articulate close, while a third-act outburst from Gail is unnecessarily obvious in an otherwise sophisticated script. Despite all these blemishes, however, “Master” wields its authority in a soul-crushing ending. Like the grievous past that will eternally follow its women, Diallo’s tale of survival lingers on your conscience.