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MOVIE REVIEW

What if ‘Get Out’ applied to college?

‘Master,’ on Amazon Prime, combines horror, race, and campus life

Regina Hall, left, and Amber Gray in "Master."Amazon Studios/Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Ancaster College is the setting of Mariama Diallo’s debut feature, “Master.” The school is “nearly as old as the country,” a student guide burbles during a campus tour, the alma mater “of two presidents and an army of senators.” It’s the sort of place where the elite meet to compete.

We’re told that Ancaster is near Boston, and one faculty member compliments another on, ahem, “your editorial in the Globe.” (The movie was shot at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.) Really, though, Ancaster is more state of mind than specific location. It could be anywhere that swards are green, brick is red, and privilege lies thick on the ground.

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“Master” opens at the Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square and starts streaming on Amazon Prime March 18.

Ancaster might sound like Pembroke University, in last year’s Netflix series “The Chair,” except that there’s nothing funny about “Master.” It has a whole lot more in common with the world of “Get Out” (2017).

Both are horror movies that are very much about the politics of race. Or maybe that should be political movies that are very much about horror. Either way, the first two-thirds of “Master” are good enough that it doesn’t suffer much by the comparison to Jordan Peele’s film. It’s that assured, that exactingly understated, that shrewdly observed. Even if the final third goes off the rails, and it sure does, “Master” announces the arrival of a director with unmistakable talent.

Zoe Renee in "The Master."Linda Kallerus/Linda Kallerus//© 2022 AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is an incoming freshman. She’s bright and personable, if also a bit wary. The wariness has something to do with being 3,000 miles from home (she’s from Washington). It has something more to do with being one of the few Black students on campus. Maybe most of all it has something do with the sheer creepiness of Ancaster.

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“Guys, she got the room!” yells another student when she hears what Jasmine’s dorm assignment is. “This room is haunted,” a different student tell her a few days later. “Some chick here died in the ‘50s.” He shrugs. “The whole school is cursed.” A few years after that, another student who lived in the room committed suicide there. She was Ancaster’s first Black undergraduate.

In the 17th century, witch trials took place near what is now the campus; and the spirit of one of the executed women is said to haunt the area. We catch a glimpse of her gravestone. Diallo isn’t afraid of laying on horror motifs like that and such others as a full moon, creaking doors and floors, an infestation of maggots, nightmares, sleepwalking (Jasmine’s prone to it), blood in unexpected places, power failures at inopportune moments, a noose, and burning cross. Those last two are grim nods to racism, but they fit right in with the general Ancaster mood of menace and dread, even as they deepen and sharpen it.

A group descended from the original settlers lives nearby. Members wear 17th-century dress and can occasionally be seen in the vicinity. This makes for good visuals, and a member of the group will prove crucial to the plot, but even by horror-movie standards the concept doesn’t so much strain credulity as ignore it.

As Jasmine gets increasingly weirded out — who wouldn’t? — a dean tries to reassure her. “Jasmine, you can’t quit. It’s not ghosts. It’s not supernatural. It’s America, and it’s everywhere.” The dean, Gail Bishop, is the first Black master of Jasmine’s dorm.

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Regina Hall in "Master."Amazon Studios

That it’s Regina Hall (”Support the Girls,” 2018) playing Bishop is the best thing “Master” has going for it. Hall, who’s one of the hosts of this year’s Oscar telecast, is a singularly warm and expressive actress. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the movie largely reduces her to looking subdued and concerned, with the occasional shock (this is a horror movie, after all), until the very end, when the dam bursts. Hall is good at all these things, but it’s a serious underuse of her talents.

If Dean Bishop offers reassurance, another woman of color on the faculty offers provocation. Liv Beckman is teaching a literary seminar Jasmine is in. When she expresses bewilderment at Beckman’s racial interpretation of “The Scarlet Letter,” the professor tells her “Just because you’re not seeing something doesn’t mean it’s not there.” That could apply to a lot of things. Amber Gray, who plays Beckman, gives a less assured performance than Hall or Renee (who really inhabits Jasmine). But that may have less to do with Gray the actress than Beckman the character.

Diallo elides very well. Scenes end sooner than you expect, which lends velocity to the story, or they overlap with what follows. There’s a surpassing tightness here. That changes during the final third of the movie. All sorts of things pile up: themes, events, characters, plot strands. Tellingly, those strands don’t knit together. Open-endedness in a narrative can be a good and challenging thing; or it can be a sign of having gotten in too deep and not being able to figure out how to get out. “Get Out” knew how to get out. “Master” doesn’t.

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Diallo situates a crucial revelation at a faculty party that’s painful to watch, and not just in the way she intends. Her knack for elision would have served her well here. Instead, she’s lavish with scorn and caricature. The awfulness of the Ancaster student body finds itself matched by that of its faculty. Everyone here other than Bishop and Beckman is a well-fed stick figure. These people aren’t just generically white. They’re freeze-dried. They’re blanched.

★★½

MASTER

Written and directed by Mariama Diallo. Starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray. At Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square ; and streaming on Amazon Prime. 98 minutes. R (language, serious scariness, college kids passing around a joint).



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.