Directed by Jenna Cato Bass.
 Starring Chumisa Cosa, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya.
Horror, South Africa, 92 minutes.

Reviewed as part of Glasgow Film Festival


Jenna Cato Bass’s South African horror combines the genre with the issues of apartheid, servitude, and the spectre they still raise over the country’s past through this small-scale psychological drama. Tsidi and her young daughter Winnie move into the house where Tsidi’s mother Mavis works as a housekeeper and caregiver. For as long as Tsidi can remember her mother has worked at this house for the white “madam” Diane, now hidden away in her bedroom due to failing health. Although unseen Diane still manages to cast a formidable presence over the house, causing Tsidi to wonder if there is more to her mother’s ever-growing obsession with caring for her madam and the house itself over anything else, including her own family.


More interesting as a social drama than an out and out horror film GOOD MADAM is a worthwhile entry into the recent domestic horror subgenre that has raised its head over the past few years with the likes of THE BABADOOK. At times it recalls that New Zealand horror with its examination of strained parenthood while also recalling PARASITE with its critique of indentured servitude. How servants can become an essential part of the household and family itself is neatly evoked and commented on in various ways, notably by Tsidi herself, a woman from a younger generation that saw how ridiculous and cruel such an ingratiating task can be compared to her mother, whose generation was forced to accept such tasks and to be grateful for them.


It is to the credit of Cato Bass and co-screenwriters Babalwa Baartman and Chumisa Cosa, who also stars as Tsidi, that such commentary and criticism never comes across as lecturing or over obvious. Although Tsidi is critical of her mother’s behaviour and loyalty she has her own issues with race, understandably brought on by being raised at the height of apartheid, although such issues are not exclusive to that country alone. It is an interesting angle and serves as an thought-provoking cultural counterpart to the works of Jordan Peele who has effortlessly combined such commentary with genre storytelling.


At times there are also sneaky glimpses of the country’s folklore, an angle that comes to bear more heavily on the film as it progresses. Cultural appropriation also raises its head here in a sly dig at the film’s possible antagonist. These supernatural subjects do feel at times slightly underdeveloped in comparison to the more apparent issues that are near constant throughout. Although there are scenes and images here that manage to get under the skin. The sound design of the houses increasingly claustrophobic nature comes to the fore and Cato Bass has a knack for taking every day routines and transforming them into something more disturbing, one example being the scene where Tsidi brushes her teeth that escalates with a completely unexpected visual shock.


Less patient audiences may be put off by the films carefully measured pace but for those who go along with it, there is plenty to admire and find interest in here. Another look at the country’s past and how it continues to haunt its people long into the future would be most welcome from this creative team.


Iain MacLeod.


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