A few months ago, it was baffling that a Sam Raimi-produced horror film starring Sandra Oh was getting so little press coverage in the early weeks of its theatrical release. Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I totally understand the lack of enthusiasm. Umma follows through on its promise of giving Oh the same heightened-emotions acting showcase that similar recent horror films like Hereditary, The Babadook, The Invisible Man, The Night House, and Here Before gave their own lead women in distress. The problem is that it aspires to participate in that distinctly modern subgenre without fully understanding its appeal. Umma indulges in the go-to themes of post-Hereditary trauma horror while backdating its filmmaking sensibilities to the look and feel of mainstream horror in the aughts, somehow offering the worst of both worlds. It’s useful as a glimpse into what aughts horror might have been like if its protagonists weren’t 100% white by default, but it’s even more useful as a counterpoint to contrarians who claim A24 & other “elevated horror” peddlers have ruined the genre in recent years. Things used to be way duller, and not that long ago.
Every post-Hereditary trauma horror needs a blatant 1:1 metaphor to dictate all of its scene-to-scene scares. Umma claims the cliché anxiety “I’m turning into my mother” as its own metaphorical territory. Given how common the cyclical, hereditary nature of abuse is as a go-to theme in modern horror, that might not sound specific enough of a metaphor, but Umma takes the phrase “I’m turning into my mother” very literally. Not only does Sandra Oh’s childhood abuse survivor start to repeat her mother’s cruelty while raising her own daughter (influenced by her mother’s ghost, of course), but she also physically mutates to look like her, forming CGI wrinkles & drooped cheeks in her most monstrous moments. She is haunted by her mother, but she is also transforming into her. There’s some genuine, heartfelt drama to be mined from that premise, making it very clear why Oh found the project so promising as an actor that she also put her weight behind it as an Executive Producer. Her only mistake, apparently, was in not pushing screenwriter Iris Shim to hire a more visually ambitious director.
Umma is well considered in its narrative & themes, but it’s got absolutely nothing going on visually or tonally that feels fresh or even up to date. It just played in theaters a few months ago, but it feels like watching the last leftover DVD from the Blockbuster Video going-out-of-business sales that you just never got around to. It can be interesting to see that dusty aughts-horror aesthetic applied to the story of a Korean American family, and the film’s most memorable visual details are directly tied to that cultural POV: kumiho attacks, haunted hanboks, creepy wooden masks, etc. It’s a shame, then, that those details couldn’t be brought into the meticulous visuals & atmospheric tones of the A24 horror aesthetic that guided its choice of themes. The dingy, underlit basements & attics where it stages most of its ghost attacks are shot with an outdated, uninspired visual eye that hasn’t been seen onscreen since the 2000s remake cycle of titles like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and The Ring. Umma is Shim’s debut feature, so I hope that if she continues to work in horror, she’ll take more inspiration from the genre’s recent visual & tonal trends along with its function as a metaphor machine. As is, it seems like she’d be more at home directing TV – a writer’s medium.