Monday, July 11, 2022

Good Madam, on Shudder

Diane is a bit like South Africa’s version of Australia’s Patrick. She is sedentary, perhaps to the point of catatonia. Yet, she is still somehow quite demanding of Mavis, her housekeeper/caretaker. When Tsidi visits her somewhat estranged birthmother, she becomes convinced there is something sinister about Diane’s silent hold over her in Jenna Cato Bass’s Good Madam, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

After the death of the beloved grandmother who raised her, Tsidi is forced to seek shelter with Mavis in Diane’s comfortable suburban home. Of course, Mavis insists Tsidi and her daughter Winnie must stay in a tiny servant’s room. It is questionable whether Diane registers much anymore, but Mavis still tiptoes around her. Whenever the bell mysteriously rings for her, she answers immediately.

Mavis’s subservience annoys Tsidi. She sees her mother as an uncomfortable throwback to South Africa’s past. She also always hated Diane’s house for the same reason. However, it seems even worse since she returned. Tsidi’s suspicions are further aroused by cryptic spell-like writings she discovers that seem to lead to the nightmarish visions plaguing her.

Good Madam
is a low-fi, slow-burning kind of horror film, but its folk horror elements will definitely get under your skin. Frankly, some of the sorcery afoot looks to be of vaguely Egyptian origin, which adds intriguing dimensions. Bass even seems to draw parallels between the royalty of Pharoah-era Egypt and the white upper-class under Apartheid.

Alas, poor Tsidi is often her own worst enemy, but Chumisa Cosa fully commits to all her freak-outs, hallucinations, grudge-nursing, and stubborn argumentativeness. It all makes Tsidi exactly the sort of victim who would be vulnerable to some sort of hex, or the like.  Nosipho Mtebe is also deeply compelling and profoundly sad in the way she portrays Mavis, whose self-image and self-worth has become almost entirely bound-up with her care for Diane. Although she hardly “does anything” on-camera, Jennifer Boraine looks appropriately unsettling when we see her as Diane, in folky, hippyish photos and stretched-out, presumably incapacitated in bed.

Good Madam
is a fine example of how inventive genre filmmakers can get maximum outputs from minimal inputs. The deliberateness of the set-up might put off impatient viewers, but it eventually builds to some solid folk horror. Recommended for fans of the sub-genre, in its subtler manifestations, and South African cinema, Good Madam starts streaming this Thursday (7/14) on Shudder.