The past and present meld into one unsettling reality in Mariama Diallo's debut feature Master, which works as an incisive drama about the original ghosts that haunt America, but is diluted by its superfluous horror elements. Set at Ancaster College — an institution so elite, Harvard is the backup option for those who don't get in — the location is depicted as being frozen in time, visually reinforced by descendants of the town's original settlers, who dress like it's still the 17th century. The grip the past exerts on the present extends to its racist attitudes, reminders of which dot the college in the form of caricaturish Black figurines and rows of paintings of White men, which reinforce the idea of whom this space was originally created for. Just as tangible is the racist behaviour of the staff, who alternately tokenise people of colour and condescend to them. A Black teacher is commended for adding "flavour" to a party populated with overwhelmingly White faces. A publicity video underlines the school's push for diversity and inclusivity, only for the film to later reveal it has exactly eight non-White students.
The opening smartly intercuts the journeys of new Black student Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) and new Black house master Gail Bishop (Regina King), separated by age and purpose, united by the experience of feeling unmoored in a predominantly White space. The initial portions of the film focus on how they navigate situations ranging from overt hostility to microaggressions and Diallo excels at depicting the loneliness it's possible to feel even in the most crowded of spaces. The film, however, falters when it begins drawing on the past more heavily, weaving in two ghost stories — one featuring the first Black Ancaster student, who eventually hung herself on campus, and another about a woman burned to death near the college in the 60s on the suspicion of being a witch. Shots of maggots emerging from paintings and shadowy red lighting add little to a film that has, so far, dealt in detailed, observed realities. A confounding rape sublot is thrown into the mix midway and dealt with just as abruptly, with no clear rationale for its inclusion.
Despite a fascinating curveball towards the end, Master heads exactly where you expect it to. "It's not ghosts, it's not supernatural. It's America, and it's everywhere," says Gail, in one of the film's most nudge-nudge lines. Despite its abundance of intriguing ideas, the film isn't able to cohesively tie them all together, making for an exercise that's more thought-provoking than narratively satisfying.
Horror movies about people unsure if they can trust their own minds are effective because they offer no easy escape from this torment, unlike films in which the horrors are more tangible. How do you flee from the sickening realisation that you're the warden and the prisoner? Hypochondriac has an innate understanding of this idea, basing its plot "on a real breakdown" as the opening title card reveals, and recontextualising the expected warmth of home videos to chilling effect. In its most harrowing scene, Will, a young child, is bundled into a car in the middle of the night by his frightened mother. What initially appears to be an escape from an abusive spouse or violent situation takes on sinister dimensions when the mother accuses him of colluding with the unidentified perpetrator and tries to strangle him in a fit of mania. Several years later, symptoms of his inherited mental illness surface when his mother tries to re-establish contact with him.
Pare away the lesser-effective horror elements from the film and what emerges is a gut-wrenching story of how isolating it is to live with mental illness. The title becomes a cruel joke over several sequences of Will (Zach Villa) visiting doctors with complaints of dizziness, hallucinations and tingling in his arms. What follows are casual dismissals, snarky condescension and the insistence that his problems are psychosomatic. The film's imagery is blunt in reiterating this idea — Will is frequently haunted by the image of a wolf lurking in the corners of his vision. That the animal was his go-to Halloween costume gradually makes it obvious that his symptoms are the result of his unresolved childhood trauma.
Director Addison Heimann contrasts the isolation of Will's paranoia with the tender intimacy of his relationship with his boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye). Heimann's lived experiences make Hypochondriac not only a study of a society ill-equipped to deal with mental illness, but also an exploration of what happens when those suffering sabotage the support systems they have left. The film's blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality, in which scenes are convincingly staged and later revealed to have never happened, are well edited, conveying Will's disorientation and tenuous grasp over his own life. Not all of the horror elements work, with the Donnie Darko (2001) and Creep (2014) imagery derivative and drained of impact by sheer repetition. Still, by the end, Hypochondriac's genre limitations are papered over by its affecting emotional core.