31 Days of Horror: Umma (2022)

I was on a JetBlue flight to California for my pick yesterday (October 6), and my choices were severely limited. You would think with the month being October, they would have come up with some Halloween-themed programming. That was not the case. After some mad texting with my sister before takeoff, we settled on Umma since neither of us had seen it. Umma was a very short movie with Sandra Oh as the lead, who I love, and I was initially excited because the JetBlue notes said Sam Raimi directed the film. How odd, I thought. That’s something that ought to have been on my radar, a new Sam Raimi horror movie. But lies! He did not direct the movie—JetBlue must not use a fact checker for their programming notes. Instead, he produced it, which I found out later when I had proper Internet access. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQdXvvtu-iI

Somehow, sandwiched between five kids to the front and back of me, I started my movie about thirty minutes into the flight. And I was underwhelmed.

The adjectives I would apply to this movie overall are pale and thin. It’s a bit of a nothing story with Oh playing overprotective mother Amanda, who is a beekeeper making her money selling honey and doing quite well after a social media post goes viral. She has plans to expand the business with her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) to keep up with skyrocketing demand for the product, but Chris has other ideas for her future.

Amanda has a peculiar illness where she’s allergic to electricity, most likely stemming from abuse as there are several flashbacks with imagery of hands being electrocuted. That results in Chris and Amanda living in an old farmhouse lit by kerosene lamps, which gives the movie a beautiful, old-timey aesthetic. I’m not sure how they tend to all the other beekeeping and honey-making duties without electricity, but somehow, we’re led to believe that they get it done. Amanda does get help from her accountant and business partner Danny (Dermot Mulroney) who shoulders a good part of the work. He has a niece visiting him for the summer, River (Odeya Rush), who helps to show Chris what a normal young woman’s life looks like. Chris is socially awkward after being homeschooled by Amanda and has absorbed her fear of the outside world.

There are glimmers of real promise in Umma—some of the acting between Oh and Stewart are magical and crackled off my tiny JetBlue screen. I also appreciated the theme of filial piety and nods to Korean mythology. I got just a taste and wished there had been so much more. There just wasn’t enough story, I thought, for the whole movie to hang together. Iris K. Shim wrote and directed this film, and looking up her previous work, I’ve added her documentary The House of Suh to my list of movies to watch. I do hope she will write and direct another horror movie. She’s working with some wonderful elements, but I don’t think the big picture has been fully realized yet.

The rest of my weekend, I was fully immersed in my astrology retreat and didn’t watch any other horror movies, though I collected a lot of ideas. There was a huge contingent of horror movie fans at the event, and I’ve got a huge list of films and series on my To Be Watched list: Martyrs (2008), The Ritual, Kill List, The Dark and the Wicked, The Servant, and Trollhunter. Just when I think I’m well-versed in horror, I realize how much I still have to learn. So it looks like my 31 Days of Horror series will have to extend into November, but with the amount of titles I’m adding to my TBW list, I might have to turn this project into something larger. Maybe there’s 365 Days of Horror in me.

Drag Me to Hell by Sam Raimi

In Sam Raimi’s return to B horror, Drag Me to Hell, I’m happy to find good old gross-out horror combined with some more subtle elements, conflicts of the human condition, that were absent in his earlier Evil Dead trilogy. Alison Lohman (White Oleander, Beowulf) stars as Christine Brown, a kindhearted farm girl from the Midwest who’s trying to make it in the city. She works as a loan officer at a bank and has her eye on a promotion, but Christine has to deal with old-fashioned sexism (a scene that played awkwardly for me, where she is persuaded to go out and get the fellas lunch–if she’s going out herself, that is). She’s told that she’s not aggressive enough when it comes to her work, and so when Christine gets an older woman at her desk, begging for help so she can keep her house, the decision is left to Christine whether to help or not. Viewing the old gypsy woman’s disgusting hygiene habits from afar, Christine goes into bitch mode and makes the customer her first sacrifice to ambition. This turns out not to be a good move.

Later, Christine is cornered in the parking garage, wearing her armor of heels and business suit, where she is terrorized by the old woman she denied help to. The woman lays a gypsy curse on Christine, where demons are allowed to torture her for three days before dragging her to hell. I’m sure lots of people would love to see this happen to the bankers and Madoffs who have tangled all of us in such a financial mess, but the curse is heavy compared to what Christine has actually done, which was legal.

Though Christine’s punishment seems harsh, I enjoyed how unladylike some of her torments are and their effects on the people around her. There’s the nursery rhyme “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly …,” and I remember being creeped out by this, imagining the sensation of a live fly winging around in the stomach. Well, this young lady swallows a fly, which causes some of the worst tummy gurgles ever, right when she’s meeting her boyfriend’s uptight parents. Other social taboos inflicted on Christine include a never-ending nosebleed and uncontrollable vomiting.

Drag Me to Hell touches on the catastrophic terrors of old age, poor hygiene, and embarrassment of one’s true self. These terrors are usually kept hidden, but they are brought out in sharp relief in Drag Me to Hell with the edges buffered by humor. The best part is that the heroine Christine is not passive as she faces these demons; she fights like hell.