“Madam Koi-Koi” Review: A Ghost Story That Doesn’t Scare Much

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You could scarcely escape the Madam Koi Koi ghost stories if you attended a Nigerian secondary school in the ‘90s and aughts. Several versions of the story exist, no doubt down to Chinese whispers, a common symptom of urban legends. In one version, Madam Koi Koi, a schoolteacher known for wearing red heeled shoes and meting out corporal punishments, is both feared and despised by the students under her care. But, one day, one such punishment goes awry, causing the school to fire her; driving home, embittered, a car accident claims her life. She then returns, as a ghost, to haunt the students, whom she blames for her misfortune. In this way she vaguely resembles Japan’s Hanako-san, the vengeful spirit of a young woman that haunts school toilets as retribution for being bullied in her lifetime.

That Madam Koi Koi has little self-awareness and a misplaced sense of justice, but, in another version, her dastardly vengeance feels justified: feeling slighted by her perceived arrogance and high-handedness, some of her male students ambush her, before proceeding to rape and kill her. In 2021, Director Pink released a short, a blanched eight-minute story with little in the way of a complex drama, but that’s about the only time the secondary school lore made it to the screen. You wonder why, given a filmmaker can at least expect to enjoy the good graces of an audience solely on nostalgia. Perhaps realizing this, Jay Franklyn Jituboh thought to fill the void: last Tuesday, a two-part series he co-wrote and directed, The Origin: Madam Koi-Koi, premiered on Netflix. The timing, too, is apt: a ghost story on Halloween’s Day. 

How good is the series? I’ll answer that by considering these two questions primarily: As a horror series, how scary is it? And how effectively does it interpret the legend? But let’s start with how effectively it situates the story, which it does well for the most part. Once a staple of dormitories, the Madam Koi Koi story has largely faded from the collective Nigerian imagination; perhaps this is the price of modernity, this forswearing of old superstitions. So it feels apt that the series is set in the past, mostly in the ‘90s but occasionally in the ‘70s. This makes for a plausible setting. A knowing anachronism appears in one scene, when a character played by Baaj Adebule uses a modern expression—“if you don’t get it, forget about it”—but the series is mostly steadfast to the period: the story unspools in a school that is facing a historical problem: it risks being annexed by the federal government, recalling the takeover of Nigerian mission schools that began in the 1970s and endured until the 1990s. The period comes alive in several other ways, through a Volkswagen Beetle and by the depiction of the fagging system common to public schools in that era.

The series is not only true to the period but also, in many ways, to the legend. We have the student rapists, an errant quartet played by Chuks Joseph, Temidayo Akinboro, Kevin T. Solomon, and Iremide Adeoye. We also see the red heeled shoes; in a shot recalling the scene in Pulp Fiction (1994) where Uma Thurman’s character is first introduced, the first thing we see of Madam Koi Koi are her feet, a blatant pointer to the origin of her name—koi koi is an onomatopoeic rendering of the click-clack of her shoes. The series also has some of the myth’s takeaways: that evil doers will suffer wicked consequences, although it belabors the point, a fact that makes for some overdrawn dialogues. And as in one variation of the myth, rape here is an instrument of mortification, used by men to cut women down to size, a subplot that also gives the series a rape-and-revenge arc. But there’s an imbalance in the dynamic: We see the rape, at least up to the point that undergarments are ripped off, a tacky, New French Extremity-esque choice that will surely nauseate some viewers and, perhaps, should have been edited out. But we do not see the revenge, not really anyway—more on this later.

As he must in order to avoid a threadbare retelling, Jituboh also departs from his source material. He introduces themes not in the original story: through a Catholic school administrator, played by Ireti Doyle, we see that crime, specifically against women, thrives in an enabling environment; we also see victim-blaming being made into an art form. The series may be set in the ‘90s, but its concerns are very much of our time; Doyle’s Madam Superior, overlooking her stiff-necked diction, could very well pass for an Andrew Tate-loving, red-pill Reddit bro—“but why did she dress like that?” Yet, it is by taking creative liberties that a central element of the legend becomes displaced. The myth centers on a feud between the aggrieved ghost of a teacher and her former students, but it’s not the case in the series. In fact, the presence of the student population is barely felt, and at no point are they aware that a vengeful spirit exists. Instead, the tension is between the specter and, well, it’s not clear. The specter and Amanda (Martha Ehinome)? The specter and a village called Malomo? 

The inconsistency in Madam Koi Koi’s constitution, however, draws more attention to itself. In the stories, she operates with a moral arithmetic that spares neither the guilty nor the innocent. But in the series there seems to be a method to her carnage: her victims are men who have sexually abused women, so that she comes off as a feminist vigilante hero. Given this, it feels out of kilter that, when the show comes to a head, she betrays this established pattern, turning her wrath not to an immoral man but a guiltless schoolgirl. Who knows, perhaps ghosts can be bipolar, but my money is on a flaky screenplay. 

As for whether this show will give you a scare, it probably wouldn’t. Sure, it has some elements of the horror genre: there are a smattering of jump scares, grotesque corpses, and, rehashing a popular horror trope, you hear the danger before you see it: you hear Madam Koi Koi’s ominous footfall before you see her pounce on her victims. But the series lacks a crucial element of the genre: a psychological dimension. Madam Koi Koi mutilates bodies, but not minds; thus, when she strikes her victims dead, it feels abrupt, even anticlimactic, given it’s not preceded by the satisfying build-up of psychological torture. This is also where the imbalance of the rape-and-revenge plotline plays out: the camera leers voyeuristically as a female body is ravaged but suddenly becomes squeamish when the day of reckoning comes for a deviant man.

Contrast this with The Fall of the House of Usher, a new Netflix horror series loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. Before a Mephistophelean character, played by Carla Gugino, lands the death blow on her victims, she first lives rent-free in their minds, a macabre foreplay forerunning the deathly money shot. Jituboh, on the other hand, goes straight for the money.

There is, however, some redemption, and it is provided by the unlikeliest candidate: the make-up department. A character, played by Chioma Chukwuka, lives through two decades without any evidence of aging. That, not Madam Koi Koi, is the real shocking horror.