Jenna Cato Bass’ Good Madam speaks to the horrors of South African apartheid as a psychological thriller: There’s nothing more frightening than worldly damage already done. The racial dynamic between “Madams” and their “servants” shapes the film’s Cape Town lifestyles into a complicated mess of thorny branches. Satirical commentary and haunted house architecture intersect, spoken in Xhosa for authenticity. Don’t expect extremely sinister imagery like Remi Weekes’ His House or ferocious zombie energies like C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s Ojuju, but don’t fret either. Good Madam delivers unrest and paranoia without needing these overt horror mechanisms.
Central to Bass’ tale is Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya), who move in with Tsidi’s estranged mother, a caretaker for a sickly white woman. Tsidi escapes her more underprivileged area for Cape Town’s suburbs as she helps mama Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) with daily upkeep duties. Mavis’ employer Diane (Jennifer Boraine) is catatonic, but Tsidi still feels her presence looming over the house, given commandments that Mavis enforces. Tsidi thinks Mavis’ emphatic servitude to Diane is strange, especially when Winnie starts speaking English and getting rides from white families—like something in the house is corrupting her child.
Good Madam stresses psychological horror as a slow burn that lingers on Tsidi’s and Mavis’ communication breakdowns. Bass taps horror tropes in lower doses that aren’t enthusiastically scare-forward, without early consistency or momentum. Tsidi’s discomfort comes from Mavis’ upholding of situationally silly guidelines, like never touching Diane’s things despite Diane’s inability to even escape from under her bedsheets. Mavis treats Diane like segregation still exists based on bitterly nostalgic fears, while Tsidi distrusts whiteness—unlike the coexisting Winnie. Good Madam represents the past, present and future as forever changed by apartheid—light on shivers, heavy on context.
Bass excels in establishing Diane as a specter that still commands her domain even in an immobile state. It’s in details like Tsidi hearing whispers and sobs from behind Diane’s bedroom door when Mavis enters, or the racial divide still present in Mavis’ instructions: Don’t use Diane’s glassware, don’t explore Diane’s quarters, don’t this, don’t that—the ghosts of colonization still torment those, like Mavis, who lived through apartheid. Tsidi vehemently protests out of anti-classist rage, but her aggravations only cause further complications when Good Madam’s more frightening elements begin to intensify. Locations remain inside Diane’s humbly gated estate, but summon macabre Egyptian traditions, systemic racism and horrific parodies of the relationship between homeowner and housekeeper.
A troubling assessment of South African introspection between three generations’ worth of experiences unfolds. Bass embraces nightmare fuel for some gross dental punishment and dagger-sharp rituals, but Tsidi’s oppressive feelings under Diane’s roof speak louder and more often about the narrative’s dreadful overtones.
Superficially, Good Madam could benefit from pepped-up pacing to stir its action beyond a few chilling nightmares and chores completed in a daze. Chumisa Cosa plays a strong lead as Tsidi rationally and loudly holds white masters accountable for their untrustworthy track records. There’s nothing exceptionally freaky outside one or two practical effects of bodily implications, and yet Good Madam still finds nationally significant ways to summon societal fears. International horror strikes again as universal themes of equality invade Cape Town with witchy-ritualistic outrage—this time at careful speeds, trying not to spill truckloads of meaning by veering too sharply down action-heavy paths.
Director: Jenna Cato Bass
Writer: Babalwa Baartman, Jenna Cato Bass, Chumisa Cosa, Chris Gxalaba, Khanyiso Kenqa, Steve Larter, Sizwe Ginger Lubengu, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, Siya Sikawuti, Peggy Tunyiswa
Starring: Chumisa Cosa, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, Khanyiso Kenqa, Chris Gxalaba, Sizwe Ginger Lubengu, Siya Sikawuti
Release Date: July 14, 2022 (Shudder)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.