Inter-generational fears of transforming into one’s own parents inform this supernatural drama by Iris K. Shim. After an unexpected visit from an estranged uncle, laid-back mom Amanda (Sandra Oh) begins to take on some of her own mother’s abusive habits. Visited by nightmarish visions of her now-deceased ‘Umma’ (Korean for “mother”), Amanda gives teenage daughter Chrissy (Fivel Stewart) a taste of the violence she experienced during her own childhood; mostly involving dark basements and live wires.
The “um, ah, well actually, that’s not real horror” crowd should have a field day here, with a surprisingly low-stakes story about a single mom and her separation anxiety. Umma has its shocks, but those who shrugged off films like The Babadook for being all metaphor, all the time may struggle with a lack of set-pieces and mortal stakes. Instead, Umma deals with familiar themes, both universal and culturally specific. Its story is reminiscent of 2020’s Run (but far better than that) and even recent Disney/Pixar releases (domineering maternal figures, haunted by their own childhoods). Sure, “Umma” is a chilling figure, but she’s also a very recognizably human one.
Appearing in her first horror film since 2005’s Hard Candy (she was the neighbour), Oh is given lots to work with, convincing as the chill homeschooler slash beekeeper (!), scared trauma victim and as a rampaging Mean Mom. While the truncated runtime has her lurching awkwardly between modes, she's never anything but compelling as the film's lead. Stewart, too, impresses as the bewildered teenage daughter, while Dermot Mulroney furthers the film’s easy-going vibe.
Granted, easy-going vibes may not be what horror fans will have wanted or expected (particularly given the Sam Raimi producer's credit) but Umma is a break from the usual loud jump scares and screaming terrors. A refreshingly humanist take on supernatural horror film tropes.