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Self-Conscious Horror 

Mariama Diallo’s “Master” and Mimi Cave’s “Fresh” are too cautious to go for the jugular.

click to enlarge Regina Hall stars as Gail Bishop in the psychological horror thriller, "Master," now streaming on Amazon Prime video.

Amazon Studios

Regina Hall stars as Gail Bishop in the psychological horror thriller, "Master," now streaming on Amazon Prime video.

The American horror film scene of the 1960s and ‘70s is very much with us decades later, as audiences and artists attempt to understand how these productions so viscerally tapped a fraying zeitgeist.

For instance, Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has presumably been ripped off three or four times as I write this piece. A key to those horror movies was go-for-broke savagery. They often served rotgut that cut to the heart of a country’s strife and self-loathing, from the sexual revolution and gas shortages to the Manson murders, the Civil Rights movement, and the resistance against an endless, demoralizing war in Vietnam. It seems as if madness was in the air and Hooper and a host of other adventurous artists tapped it directly.

Watching Mariama Diallo’s “Master” and Mimi Cave’s “Fresh” back-to-back recently, it occurred to me that we are in a new identifiable age of horror film during another time of considerable social and political tension. As befitting the customs of our current fraught times, in which manners are closely monitored, in which long overdue corrections to the racist and sexist foundations of our society are being pursued, the horror film has grown very careful. It must constantly remind us that it means well, and, for that, most modern horror movies seem so wan next to their fore-parents.

Hooper, Wes Craven, George Romero, Bill Gunn and John Carpenter, among others, jumped straight into the muck. The modern horror movie doesn’t want to risk triggering anyone, however, lest art tell us something we don’t already want to hear. For instance, the company A24 has made a brand out of tasteful, boutique, weird-in-a-way-that-doesn’t-matter horror that you forget the moment it’s over. Even something as seemingly untamed as Ti West’s “X” boasts an overt sensitivity that somehow heightens and stifles its impact at once.

And so it goes with “Master,” which is reminiscent of last year’s stiflingly self-conscious remake of “Candyman.” In the original “Candyman,” writer-director Bernard Rose trusted his audience to read the implications of Clive Barker’s scenario, in which the legacy of a murdered slave haunts not only the residents of a brutally neglected Black neighborhood, but the privileged world of nearby, mostly white academia. In Nia DaCosta’s remake, the characters sit around and discuss those themes for us, saying quite reasonable things that would be more at home in a town council meeting than a living-and-breathing movie. This tendency is very characteristic of the modern political horror film, and “Master” goes similarly wild on this literal-mindedness.

“Master” is set in a small, posh New England college, following three Black women as they navigate a tight white setting. Gail (Regina Hall) has been promoted to the dean-like position of Master; Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is a freshman at the institution; and Liv (Amber Gray) is a faculty member up for tenure. At the center of this narrative is a legitimately troubling conflict that Diallo squanders: Jasmine files a complaint against Liv, which jeopardizes her tenure as well as her blossoming friendship with Gail.

Liv heads a literature seminar that appears to be focused on race, and she gives the naïve Jasmine an ‘F’ on a paper that fails to regurgitate her own thoughts on “The Scarlett Letter” back to her. (In a nifty joke, a white student excels by cynically following orders.) From the short, glib scenes that Diallo offers, Liv appears to be a tyrant, smug and settled in her beliefs, and Jasmine’s complaint appears to be legitimate. But Liv also appears to be one of only two Black faculty members on the entire campus, and what are the optics of Gail siding with white faculty to quash her new friend’s ascendant career?

A great, thorny, extremely timely idea for a movie, but it’s a side offering, one of several passing distractions. Diallo doesn’t want to be too critical of Liv either, or even too mindful of the woman’s internal identity, and so she allows this conflict to peter out. Meanwhile, Jasmine, defined only by her virtuousness, must contend with her classmates, who’re all white monsters who speak only in racist passive-aggression. Jasmine learns several hideous campus secrets, while Gail must weather the insinuations of a white establishment that also only speaks in racist passive-aggression. Even the Obama joke from “Get Out” is repurposed.

Is it possible to recognize that the racist and sexist crimes of America’s foundation are still with us, bleeding into our everyday discourse, and still wonder why “Master” and other similarly executed films are so boring? They suffer from the modern idea that theme is all, aesthetic and human mystery be damned.

In the case of “Master,” would it have been too much for one character, once, to have said one thing, or exhibited one behavior, that doesn’t remind us that We Are a Country Founded on Racism That Runs Rampant Even Now, Even in Academia? Bad social-issues movies consistently fail to understand that every day real people, even monsters, act counter to their nature. Life is irreducible in that way, and great and even mediocre artists understand that not-so-little curlicue, including the wild-ass masters of vintage ‘60s and ‘70s American horror.

Imagine the swing and soul Bill Gunn might’ve lent this material, without losing one ounce of social-historical urgency. And at least Jordan Peele and Nia DaCosta offer formalist sizzle and flights of eccentricity—despite their preachiness, they’re true filmmakers. “Master” is a term-paper movie though: incessantly obvious and devoid of internal human mystery—drama, in other words. Liv would give it an “A.”

Mimi Cave’s “Fresh” is less ambitious than “Master” but more willing to engage with human murkiness—with emotions that might conflict with our explicit, idealized sense of ourselves. Cave and screenwriter Lauryn Kahn understand that their premise, also loaded with socio-politics, essentially speaks for itself, allowing you to draw your own conclusions. Instead, this film succumbs to simpler forms of obviousness; after a rich set-up, we’re given the usual stalk-and-slash tactics.

The first act is an impressive tease. “Fresh” has been marketed as a horror movie, yet for over 30 full minutes we’re treated to a romantic comedy in which the sense of menace has been subtly dialed up. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is a young woman tired of dating. Unlike the dull, sacrificial wallflower of “Master,” she’s allowed to be steely and nervy, especially on a hilariously awful first meeting with a cheap hipster. Per the dictates of the rom-com formula, Noa has a sassy, more sexually adventurous bestie, Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs), who imparts wisdom hard-won from the battlegrounds. Just when all appears lost, on cue comes the meet-cute: Steve (Sebastian Stan) approaches Noa in a grocery store, riffing in the cloying fashions that dudes always do in rom-coms. And which dudes, conditioned by rom-coms and online bullshit, often do in real life, and which women are conditioned to respond to. Noa’s self-aware of this identity-effacing game, but in the tradition of most of us she’s at its mercy anyway.

Cave and Kahn are alive to a creepy texture of rom-coms: behavior which is lauded and fantasized over by movie audiences is psychotic in reality. Think of the moment in “Say Anything” when the smitten young man sneaks over to his ex-girlfriend’s house early in the morning with a boom box playing the song that they first had sex to. Women my age adored Lloyd Dobler, who had the benefit of being played by the very charismatic John Cusack, but such behavior is insane. Think of any random dozen moments from “Love Actually,” that beloved holiday movie that pivots on endless scenes of male psychosis. My favorite is when the guy trying to sleep with his best friend’s wife sneaks over to the couple’s house with cue cards congratulating himself on his restraint.

Such moments are understandably unfashionable now, which may partially explain why the rom-com is currently hibernating (when it returns, it will be as cautiously executed as most modern horror films), but Cave and Kahn understand that we still watch these movies and internalize these behavioral codes. From the outset, Steve is eerily “on”— consciously playing a rom-com dude, taking the contrived behavior that we all exhibit on early dates to a heightened degree. Stan manages a tricky balance here: He’s weird enough to get our guard up and charming enough so that Noa’s attraction to him isn’t absurd. Imagine a more human Jimmy Fallon and you’re in the ballpark.

This slow burn—this delay of something awful we know to be around the corner, this preoccupation with how our micro behaviors, shaped by social conditioning, reflect a primordial, socially-shared terror—evokes a horror film as titanic as any from the ‘60s/’70s canon: Takashi Miike’s “Audition.”

Like that film, “Fresh” is intended as an indictment of the commodified sexism that drives dating rituals and that used to be peddled shamelessly by romantic comedies. But where “Audition” escalated, revealing its rom-com pretense to be a distorted façade, burrowing into its protagonist’s psyche, “Fresh” turns into a repetitive and prolonged pastiche of the TV show “Hannibal.” Steve becomes a familiar boogeyman, allowing Stan’s performance to drift into overacting, while the plot comes to hinge on the usual manipulations and near-escapes of countless torture movies. But the first act, and Edgar-Jones’s thoughtful, tightly-coiled performance, linger, suggesting the division between internal want and external expectation that eludes quite a few contemporary movies, horror and non-horror alike.

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