As discussion around “elevated horror” persists, a number of films have become targets for exasperated criticism for leaning too heavily into subtext and skimping on actual story. While Hereditary, Get Out, and The Witch took novel approaches, respectively, to recycled trauma in dysfunctional families, the insidiousness of racism in liberal white enclaves, and the self-destructive puritanism of colonizer mentalities, a second wave has come yielding mixed results due to the formulization of art-house horror aesthetics.
Bearing the brunt of criticism, lately, is Alex Garland’s Men, a schematic Lone Woman In a House story with some Charlie Kaufman-esque flair (Rory Kinnear plays every male character, much like Tom Noonan playing every other character besides the two leads in Anomalisa) and flimsy allusions to English folklore as a jumbled metaphor for the lingering effects of abusive relationships and the weight of masculine dysfunction on the female psyche. But this tendency to center themes at the expense of clarity in the story stems back to Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out, the much lauded but narratively questionable Us, and continually reappears in several movies since then.
As often happens in many new and interesting media, repetition in the interest of recapturing lightning in a bottle leads to self-caricature. One can only hope that a recalibration is made in order to balance things out. Films like Jenna Bass’s Good Madam represent a step in the right direction, although maybe not far enough of a step. Although somewhat too understated for its own good, in the age of the Horror Film as Trauma Therapy Exercise, Good Madam avoids some of the more obvious pitfalls. It’s about something other than just nebulous bad feelings, and as a story it feels solidly connected to that figurative aspect.
Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) move in with her estranged mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) after the death of her grandmother, who raised her. Mavis is the live-in housekeeper for Diane, the Madam of the title. Tensions arise when Mavis’s devotion to the invalid Madam seems to be stronger than just the power of an employer over a servant, and the increasingly stifling atmosphere of the house alienates Tsidi from her mother and daughter. The horror elements, here, are about as restrained as can be while still being considered horror, and this is where the film’s main weakness lies.
The obvious allegory being served here, i.e. the lingering impact of apartheid on the psyche of colonized South Africans, becomes quite apparent, what with the South African family still serving the wealthy white inhabitatants of their lands, their situation at home contingent on the lasting vitality of their masters. Tsidi’s deep distrust of white people forms a rift between her and Mavis, who has come to practically worship Diane as the provider of her home and livelihood for decades, too dependent to see herself as an individual with just as much stake in the house. In illustrating these factors, the story occasionally falls into tedium, recycling arguments with occasional spooky imagery rather than weaving it into an original horror tale.
And yet, as consideration of Good Madam deepens after the end credits, it’s clear that there’s something subtle and devious at work from the beginning. Once the supernatural comes into play, no matter how late, it’s hard not to go back and look at everything differently. Every action and line of dialogue may have a new motivation depending on whether one looks at it as a family drama or a low-key tale of possession.
Good Madam rests on the knife’s edge of the “elevated horror” debate, tilting ever-so-slightly into the side of authentic filmmaking, where the plot meets the message in novel and cohesive ways.| Nic Champion
Good Madam will be available on Shudder beginning July 14.