The Headmistress is the second film from Three Tortured Minds, the same team behind 2018 indie darling The Nursery. While following up on a successful first film can often be daunting for various reasons, the team at Three Tortured Minds masterfully escapes the so-called sophomore jinx with their new film. After a theatrical release earlier this year, the film is now available via Video on Demand platforms.
The Headmistress (2023) is surprisingly full of jump scares and charm. At the outset of this haunted house tale, the viewer is presented with a dwelling that does not resemble the rambling Victorian mansions or estates on a hill that have become canonical in our collective imagination thanks to Shirley Jackson or the suburban paradise turned prisons as featured in the nearly innumerable films in the Amityville Horror universe. The house in The Headmistress is worse than both of those tropes–the structure itself is bland, soulless, and reminiscent of a lame McMansion. But thankfully, for the viewer, the style of the house is by far the most objectionable part of the film.I
Our cast of characters is brought to the property when Mara, a teacher, inherits it from her absent father and wants to make a quick profit selling the property. The group of interested buyers that accompany Mara to the house are decidedly characters that most viewers of seen before, a sort of Breakfast Club-esque collection of folks who would not cross paths otherwise except for this investment opportunity. The standouts of this group, for good and for ill, are the dynamic duo of Pete and Dex, the Pete-za guys, and jerky businessman Donovan.
The Pete-za guys steal nearly every scene they’re in, and I don’t know if I’ve encountered a more likable dynamic duo since Jay and Silent Bob. I hope Pete and Dex get their own film at some point or become reliable recurring characters in future Three Tortured Minds films. Donovan, however, is written like something out of the worst part of the 90s and also the worst parts of contemporary society. This suit-clad real estate mogul is dripping with misogyny and contempt for anyone but himself. Think Chris Noth’s iconic Mr. Big on Sex and the City without the charisma and spouting rhetoric unsuitable for polite society.
Historically Horrifying Ladies
Beyond the characters, there is some impressive world build and myth-making happening in The Headmistress’s cool 90-minute run time. Over the course of the film, the audience learns about the nefarious past residents of Mara’s recently inherited property and their devious behavior, which predictably has become the stuff of local Wisconsin legend, where the film is set. The storytelling behind the titular character is so compelling that in preparing to write this review, I did a quick internet search to see if this was an actual local legend.
I was only slightly disappointed that, as far as the web is concerned, it does not seem to be one. But my disappointment quickly dissipated due to appreciation of the fact that after the spate of scary ladies creepily haunting spooky house films (The Conjuring series, The Curse of La Lollorna, The Nun, etc.) in recent years that a newly minted spooky lady could be introduced in such a fascinating manner that I only wished she was based in some reality. I’m not alone in this The Headmistress currently has a 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Art of Independent Horror
The horror genre has enjoyed a bit of a film renaissance over the last few years, fueled by an ever-expanding fan base that is willing to show up for each new release to drive box-office success. While that is an overall positive trend for fans and filmmakers alike because it creates conditions for not only more films to be green-lit but for those projects to receive bigger budgets upon approval, it is important that this trend does not cause us, collectively, to lose track of the vital role that independent films have always played and will continue to play in the horror space.
The Headmistress is proof once again that films don’t need huge production value to be scary. Although this is an independent film, there are plenty of good scares and entertaining deaths to be had. Indeed, the team at Three Tortured Minds knows how to make the most of what’s available to them. For example, one of the best kills happens behind a plain wood door, out of sight of the viewer, who only has wet squishy sounds, yelling, and their own imagination to keep them company.
Similarly, there is minimal use of special effects, but what does get used is more than effective without looking fake. In addition, the narrative provides a thoughtful evolution around the themes of debt and inheritance without being too cerebral or pedantic. Suppose you enjoyed Grady Hendrix’s excellent new novel, How to Sell A Haunted House, not only because the puppets are creepy but because it made you think a little more than you would have liked about your own family. In that case, you will appreciate how these topics are addressed in The Headmistress.
The film is capped off with a delightfully creepy visual recap of all of the places the viewer has just been right before the end credits, a device which in less adept hands would have been contrived is instead the exclamation point on the screaming good time that is The Headmistress.