Mariama Diallo’s feature debut Master, starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, and Amber Gray, will premiere globally March 18 on Prime Video.
In the film, three women strive to find their place at a prestigious New England university whose frosty elitism may disguise something more sinister.
The film’s title is in reference to Regina Hall’s role as Professor Gail Bishop, who has recently been promoted to “Master” of a residence hall, the first time at storied Ancaster College that a Black woman has held the post. Determined to breathe new life into a centuries-old tradition, Gail soon finds herself wrapped up in the trials and tribulations of Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), an energetic and optimistic Black freshman.
“I used to have a ‘master,’” Diallo tells Bloody Disgusting when asked about the genesis of the film. “I went to a school where, like Ancaster, every incoming student was assigned one in perpetuity. A few years after graduating, I ran into said master out on the streets of New York and instinctively called out to him by the name I had known him by all that time: Master (Last Name). And it was immediately weird! As I walked away from that interaction, I knew that I wanted to investigate the past few years of my life, starting with the word ‘master’.”
Diallo’s festival hit might begin with social commentary, but it actually turns into a chilling horror film when Jasmine’s time at Ancaster hits a snag early on when she’s assigned a dorm room that is rumored to be haunted.
“I’ve always loved horror films,” she adds. “I think there’s something very earnest and upfront about them – there’s less obfuscation than can happen in other genres. The filmmaker-viewer contract is clear: I will try to scare you, I will try to give you a visceral emotional experience. That’s really honest and fun and exciting to me. It’s also really challenging. I think cracking into what scares us as humans is complex and not always logical; horror demands that you access a primordial emotional space. How fucking cool is that?”
Diallo is a big horror fan, telling us that she loves Hereditary, The Witch, Let the Right One In, and calls Jordan Peele’s Get Out the GOAT (greatest of all-time). As for Master, she offers up many inspirations.
“There were a lot of films that were on my mind as I made Master. I was on a big Haneke kick – for me, so many of his films can be viewed through a horror lens. The Piano Teacher, Cache, and The White Ribbon were some of his films that I kept returning to,” she tells me. “In the classic horror space, I spent a lot of time with The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now, and I was also really into Bergman’s psycho-emotional work like The Hour of the Wolf. Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger was another inspiration, particularly with respect to balancing tones and creating a story that is specific and personal, as well as metaphorical/abstract.”
While the horror in Master is supernatural, the scares are fueled by witchcraft.
“The Salem Witch Trials have always been fascinating to me, as I’m sure is the case for many other people. I spent a lot of time researching the trials and executions, and particularly the testimony of Tituba – a possibly Indigenous American, possibly black woman who was enslaved by Samuel Parris. Ultimately, however, the haunting in the dorm room doesn’t emerge from an academic space but one of lore and urban legend.”
She also discusses layering the supernatural with the real horrors of academia: “The two seemed really complementary to me, so weaving a supernatural tale through the film was intuitive. I think more than anything, the supernatural in the film emerges from an emotional space that is informed by the events going on in the academic arena. There were definitely a few supernatural elements that were trimmed down in sharpening the script and the edit, but the same occurred for non-supernatural scenes as well. The film was bursting at the seams!”
The scares in Master are simply sublime, and Diallo talks a bit about constructing these pinnacle moments.
“Building the horror scenes was definitely a multistep process. Starting in the script phase, I had to really challenge myself to access what I find horrifying and then find a way to communicate that with words. There were some horror moments that I discarded because I ultimately felt that they were not coming from a true space and were therefore not really horrifying. Then, when the script was ready, I spent a lot of time talking to the DP, Charlotte Hornsby, about how to craft these moments and build tension. We also watched references and just generally freaked ourselves out.”
Master is a new turn for Regina Hall, who is known for her comedy chops. Diallo not only raves about her performance but how much fun she was to work with on set.
Diallo shares this fun anecdote: “Our costume designer, Mirren Gordon-Crozier, was pregnant during the shoot, and Regina was trying to predict the due date. I actually think she might have gotten it right.
“Is Regina a witch? You heard it here first,” she jokes.
Check out Master when it premieres globally on Prime Video March 18.