Horror is part of Sam Raimi’s filmmaking DNA, whether he’s going all-out with slapstick gorefests like the Evil Dead trilogy, adding monster-movie touches to his Spider-Man movies, or suffusing thrillers like A Simple Plan or The Gift with a more subdued form of creeping dread. So it’s only natural that he’d spend some of his big-studio capital on producing horror movies — and it’s downright confounding how few of them have been any good. Cracking B-movies like Don’t Breathe and Crawl are the exceptions. The disappointing likes of 30 Days of Night and Boogeyman have been the rule.
Raimi’s faltering track record as a horror producer isn’t the responsibility of Iris K. Shim, the writer-director behind Umma. But watching this resolutely unscary, poorly paced, Raimi-produced horror picture, it’s difficult to avoid a pang of longing for the energy and aggression of films like Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, which he described in promotional interviews as a “spook-a-blast.” The simplest definition of that term is an amped-up funhouse horror movie, which Umma isn’t, apart from one Drag Me to Hell-style shot where the heroine is, yes, dragged off by a ghostly force. Unfortunately, that wildness proves short-lived. Throughout its slim but slow 83 minutes, Umma piles up missed-opportunity scenes that cry out for a ghoulish sense of humor or an audience-rattling jump.
Instead, Amanda (Killing Eve co-star Sandra Oh) spends a lot of time moping. Amanda has escaped her domineering mother in Korea (the movie’s title comes from “mother” in Korean) and relocated to America, where she and her teenage daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) make honey at a remote little bee farm. Their only regular point of contact is a friendly local (Dermot Mulroney) who helps sell their honey online in exchange for bookkeeping work from Amanda. Why do they need to barter with someone to maintain a modest e-commerce business? Because they live without the use of electricity: no lights, no cell phones, no internal combustion engines. (Visitors must shut off their car motors as soon as they reach the property.) Amanda claims that electricity makes her physically ill, a clear obfuscation of her troubled past.
That past doesn’t exactly creep back into Amanda’s life — it basically marches up to her door and explains that it will be haunting her more directly going forward. Early in the film, Amanda’s uncle from Korea shows up to bring her the cremated remains of her recently deceased mother. Shortly thereafter, Amanda starts seeing the ghostly, angry figure of her unsettled mother, just as Chris starts to chafe at her mother’s protectiveness. Like every sheltered movie 17-year-old, Chris is exploring her college options in secret until her domineering parent finds out. Like every domineering parent in a movie, Amanda considers this development a shocking betrayal. The conflict is so familiar and so cartoonishly rendered that it’s difficult to take seriously. (Wouldn’t it be more insidious if Amanda undermined her daughter subtly, at least at first?)
As Chris pulls away, Amanda gets progressively more fearful and jumpy as she attempts to tighten her grip. Say, could Amanda start turning into her mother if she isn’t careful? Amanda herself poses this question several times, out loud, in case the conflict at hand was remotely unclear. Some horror movies rely on generating silently festering currents of unease. Umma instead contains at least five scenes where one character stands in front of another and delivers exposition about their past or current feelings. There’s no mystery, no imagery, no subtext, and between these glum confessions, the story generates an astonishing lack of momentum. It amounts to a list of things that have been, in other contexts, sufficiently scary: ghosts, masks, childhood trauma, and turning into the monster you once feared.
The themes Shim wants to explore have powered plenty of notable horror pictures, most recently including Relic, Run, and Hereditary. By comparison, Umma seems to be operating with the safety on, which strands the actors into looking uneasy but never truly terrified. As a horror lead, Oh is especially static. Rather than letting loose with frustration or fear, committing to Amanda’s inner monster, or varying her performance in any way, she looks continuously dismayed, conveying all the soul-shaking terror of someone dreading a long bus ride. Stewart fares a little better, especially when she’s paired with Odeya Rush as a more socialized girl her age. But the movie doesn’t have much imagination when it comes to the effects of her character’s near-total isolation. Chris is pretty much just a well-adjusted girl without a cell phone.
There’s no sense of wildness to anyone or anything in Umma, and it’s hard to make an effective movie about the loss of control when the filmmaking seems reluctant to disturb anyone. Even the handful of memorable images — a vision of Amanda’s mother shot through a beekeeper’s mask, or a Raimi-esque upside-down shot of a character bursting from the earth in the moonlight — dissipate quickly, as if embarrassed to hint at anything fun. The most interesting thing about the movie is purely coincidental: It arrives a week after Pixar’s wonderful Turning Red, which also features Oh playing a mom who simultaneously smothers her child and lives in fear of her own mother. Any domineering parents whose older children roll their eyes at the idea of watching the animated Turning Red with their families are advised to make them see Umma instead. It won’t scare them, but it may bore them back into submission.
Umma opens in theaters on March 18.