Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
While I’m not as averse to spoilers as most, I do sometimes enjoy going into films completely blind. It can be a risk not even to be able to set an expectation for what kind of horror film you’re watching, but some of my favourite viewing experiences have begun like that.
So I put Good Madam on my list without knowing anything except the country of origin. I was intrigued to see what a modern horror film from South Africa would be like. Beyond that, I didn’t so much as read a synopsis or watch a trailer. Let’s see how that gamble paid off.
Good Madam is currently streaming on Shudder in the UK.
Good Madam takes place in an affluent suburb in modern-day South Africa. Tsidi is the single mother of a young daughter, Winnie. She has fallen out with her family over who should live in their shared home. With nowhere else to go, she turns to her estranged mother, Mavis, who works as a live-in maid. In particular, Mavis has spent decades working for Diane, a wealthy white woman in a very white suburb. Tsidi grew up here and has bad memories of her childhood.
While Mavis lives in Diane’s house, she is careful to remind her daughter and granddaughter that this is not their home. They are not to use any of Diane’s crockery, even though they share a kitchen, and they must remain quiet unless called for. When Tsidi challenges her mother by saying, “So we should pretend not to be here even though we are”, Mavis only agrees.
Now old and sick, Diane is largely an unseen presence in the women’s lives. Tsidi joins her mother in the constant work required to keep this large, empty house spotless. Only Mavis tends to Diane in her room, hurrying whenever Diane rings a bell. As Diane’s health worsens, strange manifestations occur throughout the house, hinting at a weakening between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Why are previous generations of servants buried in a private graveyard on the grounds? What is the meaning of the strange Ancient Egyptian inscriptions Tsidi keeps stumbling upon? And just what does Diane have planned as she prepares to enter the next world?
As a white bloke who as never been to South Africa, I cheerfully admit to being out of my depth in trying to pick this film apart. I’ve read negative reviews from black critics who feel that this film is simply retreading old traumas rather than addressing them, especially given that the director is white. While this doesn’t seem to be a universal view, I feel very much unqualified to assess it.
I can still appreciate that this is very much a film about ownership. We have three generations of black women living in a house that will never be theirs. It is filled with carvings, sculptures and other artworks from across the continent, all now owned by a woman descended from colonists. Generations of servants are buried on the grounds, their bodies owned by their employers even into death. This is not a subtle metaphor.
For a while, I did wonder whether the film might be going in a different direction. It takes almost an hour for us to see Diane. Until then, we only hear her bell summoning Mavis to her room. I’d started to suspect that Diane had been dead for some time and a mere echo of her presence still ruled over the house, like the ghost of apartheid.
Good Madam is certainly an unusual, beautifully crafted film with a lot to say. It did take some time for me to really engage with it, however. While I found myself admiring the skilful way it used sound and editing to create a creeping sense of dread, I grew impatient waiting for something to actually happen. Until about an hour in, I was wondering if this was really a horror film.
When the story finally shifts into gear, however, it proves worth the wait. There is an understated domestic horror here, reminiscent of films like Burnt Offerings and Skeleton Key. At the same time, iy i filled with political allegory about the lingering effects of apartheid in a post-colonial South Africa. The metaphors are obvious but handled deftly enough that I never felt smacked in the face by them.
I’m not sure if Good Madam will be to most horror fans’ tastes. While it is a powerful and even admirable film, it is sedate and rarely frightening. There are some unsettling moments and a real sense of dread but it is more interested in challenging than scaring us.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!