I’ll say this upfront. The South African thriller Good Madam is one of Shudder’s best original features of the year. It’s a smart and terrifying allegory about class and racial inequality. We’ve seen these themes handled plenty of times in genre films before, but director Jenna Cato Bass does it with such nuance and depth. That’s what makes Good Madam stand out.
The psychological thriller follows Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), who’s forced to move in with her estranged mother, a domestic worker who takes care of the catatonic, wealthy white “Madam.” What unfolds within the lean 90 minutes underscores the darkness of domestic servitude. This movie is about feeling trapped by race and class.
Good Madam and the Horrors of the Domestic Space
Immediately, the film amplifies the sounds of the domestic space, making the familiar feel hair-raising. Good Madam opens with the harsh noise of a brush scrubbing against the floor. Even the typically soft sound of dripping water becomes ear-splitting. When Tsidi brushes her teeth, it’s like a saw cutting bone. Bass really did a stellar job here making Diane/the Madam’s (Jennifer Boraine) home become a place of terror, where even the familiar becomes uncanny and unnerving. The house is also filled with strange statues and symbols on the wall. Much later on, Tsidi learns some of the markings are spells Diane uses to bind domestic workers to her in the afterlife. It’s a chilling premise, for sure. There’s no escape from servitude.
Tsidi’s birth mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), demonstrates sheer loyalty to the Madam, despite Tsidi’s protests. Tsidi even accuses her of “springing” forth whenever Diane rings the bell, another sound that echoes and haunts. Despite her loyalty, Mavis won’t even use Diane’s mugs for tea, and when Tsidi asks her what she’d change about the house, she says nothing, since it’s the Madam’s house. The tension escalates to the point that Tsidi accuses her mom of living under apartheid. These back and forth scenes between the mother and daughter are some of the best in the film. Mtebe and Cosa are fantastic in their respective roles. Mtebe especially conveys such pathos, while Cosa’s character displays justified anger.
Yet, there’s another layer of complexity here. Mavis reminds her daughter that they’d have nowhere else to go without Diane. They’re allowed to live there because Mavis is a domestic worker. Tsidi needs somewhere to live too, since she raises her daughter, Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya), on her own. Winnie’s father, Luthando (Khanyiso Kenqa). won’t win dad of the year anytime soon. He’s constantly late to pick up his daughter. It’s unclear why the relationship didn’t work out, but Tsidi doesn’t have a ton of options, hence why she moves in with Mavis, who’s trapped both by the house and by her loyalty to Diane.
Good Madam’s Frightful Family Dynamics
There’s a lot at stake regarding family dynamics, too. Mavis’ son, Stuart (Sanda Shandu), was raised by Diane. It’s never explicitly stated, but it’s likely Mavis couldn’t afford to raise him, along with her other children. He speaks English and expresses more loyalty and love for Diane than he dose towards Mavis. This is apparent when Tsidi expresses her concerns about Mavis’ age and her ability to keep trudging along as a domestic worker. Stuart worries about Diane’s health more than his actual birth mother’s. Pictures show him laughing and having a fine old time with the white family.
Further, it’s clear that Tsidi feels isolated within the family, especially once Stuart shows up about two-thirds of the way through the movie. She doesn’t want his influence to overtake Winni, who also starts speaking English more than her native tongue. Winni shows affinity towards the house, despite her mom’s very early reservations about moving there. While Stuart’s role in the film isn’t huge, it’s important in that he aligns with the wealthier white class that Diane represents. He’s known that upward lifestyle more than he’s known his actual blood family. This sets him at odds with Tsidi, who distrusts him, and for good reason, too. However, even the rest of Tsidi’s blood family often dismisses her and even questions her parenting skills. All of this leads to her profound sense of isolation and lack of independence.
The Trappings of Domestic Servitude
What’s so horrifying and effective about Good Madam is how it conveys the trappings of domestic servitude. Frequently shown on her knees, scrubbing the floors, or walking around the house dusting, Mavis can’t envision any other life for herself. Her body slows as the movie progresses. Eventually, even Tsidi falls under the spell, washing and scrubbing until her hands blister and bruise. The house becomes a prison, a character unto itself, filled with weird dolls, strange etchings, bizarre pictures, and eerie, ominous noises. The constant sound of Diane’s bell chills. The domestic space becomes a pure nightmare, trapping the help.
Without spoiling too much, the ending leaves enough ambiguity. Viewers may have varying opinions as to whether or not the help is free by the end credits. Regardless, Good Madam explores the darkness of domestic servitude. It’s a smart, well-scripted allegory about class and racial inequality. It’s all the little things about this film that makes it so unnerving, like the wheeze of Diane’s breath, or that damn bell chiming again and again. Bass really has a strong and bold feature here. It’s one of the best horror movies this year.
Good Madame arrives on Shudder on July 14. For the latest on the streaming service’s new content, be sure to keep following my weekly Shudder Secrets column.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.