The Shudder original Good Madam, proclaimed as a horror-satire by South African writer/director Jenna Cato Bass is the filmmaker’s first foray into horror. Not a horror fan, she still wanted to explore the genre with her “genre means nothing without substance” philosophy.
In South Africa where apartheid officially ended over 30 years ago, it persists in economic form to this day. Calling to memory movies from Skeleton Key to His House, the way Cato Bass expertly interweaves the supernatural horror with the real life struggles of her characters keeps the viewer off-balance enough that even the mundane seems sinister.
Tsidi is a single mother in South Africa where the grandmother she has been living with and caring for has just passed away. The family gathers at the house for the posthumous rituals and traditions of the Xhosa culture. While the family does acknowledge Tsidi’s history of caring for the family matriarch, in the patriarchal culture in which they live, this affords her no special treatment and all decisions about their grandmother’s assets fall to the oldest male heir. This does not sit well with Tsidi, headstrong and defiant, as she sees her home being taken from her control – so she flees to the suburban, wealthy home where her mother, Mavis, has lived and worked since her earliest memories.
Tsidi and her daughter Winnie arrive unannounced at the large, empty house, dimly lit and filled with colonial furnishings alongside Africana that is present in most white South African homes. The continued real-life struggle of South Africa’s black majority is personified in Mavis, the early elderly mother of the film’s main protagonist Tsidi, and the way she obsessively and meticulously cares for her infirm white “Madam” and her affluent, white, suburban home. Mavis both loves and fears Madam, for this live-in housekeeper/caregiver job is all she has and all she’s known. If Madam were to die or be moved to elsewhere for professional care, Mavis would be cast out on the street with nothing to show for decades of service to the family. Madam is her burden and her lifeline, which puts Mavis in a terribly precarious position as she herself is aging and plagued with health problems.
“It’s not that Mama doesn’t like this house — this house doesn’t like Mama,” – Tsidi in the Good Madam
Having been mostly estranged from Mavis for many years, Tsidi and Mavis’ relationship is strained. Tsidi cannot stomach injustice and cannot understand or condone the life her mother lives that is so clearly still apartheid mentality. As strange things begin happening – scarily vivid dreams, the appearance of a long dead family pet, strange markings found on walls and in old books – one wonders if Tsidi is losing her mind or if there is really a sinister supernatural force in the house.
The more unraveled Tsidi becomes, the less anyone – her daughter, ex-husband, or mother – will listen to her concerns as anything other than maniacal rantings. An unexpected visit from Tsidi’s “coconut” (black on the outside, white on the inside) half brother Gcinumzi, raised alongside Madam’s own sons and renamed Stuart by the white family, moves the plot into a higher gear as he acts in service of some secret agenda while appearing to just be home for an innocent visit.
Good Madam is a unique film where most of the performing ensemble shares writing credit as they all contributed to the story. The jarring audio and flashes of activity break up the continuity of the scenes keeping the viewer on edge. I spent much of this movie waiting for something to happen, and then when it DID happen it was so jumbled and stylized that it was difficult to pinpoint the details of the climax, leaving me knowing vaguely what had transpired, but not understanding exactly HOW. I do enjoy a movie that stays with me after, and this one had me putting together the pieces long after the final credits rolled. The devil is certainly in the details here, and to get the full picture, I think I’d need to frame-by-frame sequences of images. South African culture is sparse in the horror genre, and the film is an authentic expression of the language and culture of the characters represented, so I do recommend giving it a try even if it isn’t my favorite.
Good Madam is filmed in Xhosa and English with subtitles available and premiers on Shudder July 14th.
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