“An interesting take on horror that passes, first and foremost, through the hands.“
The sixth annual Brooklyn Horror Film Festival opened the bloodgates this year not with a rip-roaring gore show like The Sadness (that one comes on closing night), but with an unexpected slow burn: South African director Jenna Cato Bass’s eerie Good Madam (Mlungu Wam). Taking up the mantle of other bright stars of the creepy-old-lady-upstairs subsection of the genre (looking at you, Burnt Offerings), Good Madam offers an interesting take on horror that passes, first and foremost, through the hands.
The film feels like something one can reach out and touch: with a visual language emphasizing texture above all, the extreme close-up is Good Madam’s mother tongue. Water surging through sink drains, the bubbling surface of a pot full of porridge, splits in wooden masks, and the gilded edges of fine porcelain cups—all of these details embody the presence of the titular madam, Diane (Jennifer Boraine), while she wastes away in her off-screen bedroom. If the hands are the arbiter of head and heart, it’s housekeeper Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) who communicates the oppressiveness of Diane’s impending death, her scrubbing and polishing and chopping offering a quotidian representation of the nails-on-a-chalkboard uneasiness that pervades Diane’s house. Beyond mood, the film’s obsession of the minutiae of housework evokes a connection between death and domestic servitude, a relationship made more prescient by the specter of apartheid that the characters don’t hesitate to mention themselves.
The stasis is broken when Mavis’s daughter Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and granddaughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) come to stay, and Tsidi makes a discovery of the occult order that spells eternal doom for her and her family. Without divulging too many details, the film should be commended for the critique it communicates through its initially head-scratching but ultimately successful final twist. With an eye toward issues of race and labor, Good Madam likens the modern domestic service industry to more oblique forms of slavery, implying a continuous lineage of historical servitude that extends well into the afterlife.
Though its creeping mood is undoubtedly unnerving, certain moments in the film—photographs and apparitions of a boy with truly terrifying eyes, spontaneous choking episodes, and a vomiting scene Regan MacNeil would be proud of—seem completely out of place. Many of these elements feel culled from a collection of stock genre motifs, upping the scary meter with little to no discernible relationship to the horror at the film’s core. Good Madam’s construction, therefore, fails to achieve a truly cohesive whole despite the dedication to a strong sense of atmosphere embedded in the camera’s love of visual and sonic texture. The film suffers for it on more than a cause-and-effect level: there’s nothing wrong with a slow burn, but without every element dutifully adding heat to the fire, the film concludes with an unplaceable feeling that something didn’t completely click.
Fortunately, this is by no means a self-inflicted death blow, and Good Madam carries the viewer into its haptic world of domestic oppression. Most refreshingly of all, the film offers a thoughtful perspective, eschewing the visceral fear of gore and jump scare in favor of a more psychological approach to horror in the form of modern slavery. For Mavis and Tsidi, death—the fear of which lies at the heart of all great cinematic scares—finds itself in the slow and endless working of sponges, scouring brushes, and rattling kettles. In Bass’s hands the broom becomes a shovel, with sweeping the madam’s floor tantamount to digging one’s own grave.
Dir: Jenna Cato Bass
Prod: Salman Al-Rashid, David Bass, Sam Frohman, Richard Mansell, Jason Newmark
Cast: Chumisa Cosa, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya
Release Date: 27th September, 2021 (United States)
Images courtesy of Visit Films.