Oh mama, this film is bad…
Horror is a genre that is particularly generous to movies with extremely low budgets. Tension and fear are largely unreliant on stunts, effects or expensive rigging. With a committed performance from a lead actor, solid sound design and lighting, and careful camerawork, you can make the most barebones plot and setting give your audience the shivers. Umma, however, falls short in almost every regard.
Directed by Iris K. Shim and produced by Sam Raimi, Umma follows Amanda and her daughter Chris, living on a remote farm without any technology due to Amanda’s fear of electricity. The ashes of Amanda’s abusive, estranged mother are delivered to their house, bringing her vengeful spirit along with it.
The film’s main draw is Sandra Oh of Killing Eve fame in the starring role. Made on a shoestring budget, even for horror, a lot must have been banked on her carrying the film. Oh certainly puts her back into it, but given the shallow and one-dimensional characterisation, the performance feels hollow.
Nuance is completely absent throughout the script. Everyone says exactly what they think and feel, and they mean everything they say; nothing further is implied beyond that. Scenes that could have been emotionally resonant are instead rendered patronising and dense.
There is the ghost of a good script here. It’s an honest and (in theory) touching story about cross-cultural upbringing and how you choose to reconcile your heritage with your self-identification, as well as the fear of becoming just like your parents against your best wishes. But it needed another draft, and for someone to write ‘show, don’t tell’ in big red letters over this copy.
Umma also has a serious pacing issue, with the majority of the horror segments feeling more like vignettes, disconnected from the preceding or following scenes. There’s no real escalation in stakes or tension, and the climax is anything but climactic. It’s a bit of a surprise when it finally ends, and everything wraps up a bit too neatly and predictably.
Even amongst all of this, the worst part is that the film isn’t even a little bit scary. The early forays into spookiness usually rely on characters slowly looking around in confusion, and end in weak jumpscares. Oh isn’t given nearly enough time to flex in her more sinister moments, and the whole thing ends up feeling like a pale shadow of The Babadook.
It’s not helped by everything being far too dark – I don’t mean tonally; I mean you literally can’t see anything half the time. Even giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming the poor lighting is deliberate obfuscation, the result is frustration rather than fear.
There’s undoubtedly potential in Umma, both in its subject and its cast, but it’s a potential unrealised in the finished product. Disappointment’s all you’re likely to get out of this one.