Savannah Chess says Good Madam is a socially conscious horror film illustrating colonialism's problematic past and present.
Jenna Cato Bass and Babalwa Baartman explore the genuine horrors of post-apartheid life in the South African Shudder Original, Good Madam. The film was co-written with star Chumisa Cosa, and the entire cast has been credited for the script, making it a hugely collaborative effort. The narrative delves into themes of reclaiming and the racial and economic tensions still prevalent in South African culture.
Told through the perspective of three generations of women, the film follows Tsidi (Cosa), her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya), and her estranged mother Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe). Tsidi and Winnie must move in with Mavis following a falling out with extended family. In the wealthy suburbs of South Africa, Mavis works as a live-in domestic worker for her sickly and bed-ridden white ‘Madam’ (Jennifer Boraine). In a house full of strict rules and eerie overtones, Tsidi not only feels unwelcome but is unhappy with their circumstances. As the three women navigate their time staying in the servant quarters of the pristinely kept estate, strange occurrences reveal the living nightmare that traps them and so many others.
With only a subtle hint of the supernatural and a couple of high-quality jump scares, most of its horrors are focused on political allegories. While some may relate the film to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Good Madam is a unique and far more severe lens on colonialism deeply rooted in South African culture. That culture is so ingrained in the story that those unfamiliar with it may fail to understand the dynamics of Tsidi’s family that cause Tsidi and Winnie to struggle with finding a home and their mourning and inheritance traditions. While the film’s supernatural events, like Mavis’ trance-like cleaning in the middle of the night, Tsidi’s sighting of a ghostly apparition in the form of the Madam’s dog, and a spell cast upon Mavis are all eerie, they barely hold a candle to the true horrors the women face.
Their livelihood depends on that of the Madam’s existence. If she dies or moves to assisted living, the three will be left homeless, despite Mavis’ decades of service. The horror is left in the hands of the unknown, which the film builds off. While Bass and Baartman use a variety of tropes, both expected and unexpected, the film remained unpredictable until the end.
Good Madam conjures much of its sinister feeling through the use of sound. Bass and Baartman stated in an interview with Slay Away that the “sound design and the soundtrack were interlinked, and we always knew that we wanted to create the sense that the spaces that we are in are all-consuming and over-powering.” The audience hears water draining and the scratching and scrubbing of surfaces. Every bit of sound brings a hair-raising and menacing feeling, almost weaponizing household objects.
The graphic visualization of household chores became disorientating under the drumming of incessant noise, only to slowly turn into traditional singing. This singing is heard at various times throughout the film, beautifully rising and falling during scenes of intensity, tying into the theme of reclaiming. While some may inaccurately refer to it as chanting, it is a form of communication and a genre of music within the Xhosa culture. The addition of this music, while adding an element of distress, is the director’s way of representing all of the generations that have been victims of Madams everywhere.
Good Madam is a thoughtful and beautiful film that plays with horror to delve into the master-servant relationship that continues to thrive in post-apartheid South Africa. A character-driven story, it highlights generational strife with solid scares and an even deeper fear of the truth.
Good Madam is streaming exclusively on Shudder.