Goodnight Mommy (2014) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for disturbing violent content and some nudity
Running Time: 99 min.
Cast: Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest
Director: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Screenplay: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Review published November 7, 2015
The 'Mommy' of the title is played by Susanne Wuest (Judas Goat, Antares), who, for a good part of the film, has her face wrapped in bandages following facial reconstruction due to an accident, or so she suggests. She is there in her large, secluded Austrian countryside home with her two nine-year-old twin boys, Lukas and Elias (the real names of the acting Schwarz twins), who aren't entirely convinced she is their real mother. Mother has been growing increasingly impatient with the boys' shenanigans, which further leads to their feeling that she's been replaced by an imposter, and they're going to get her to confess who she really is, even if it kills her.
Low on jump-scare gimmicks but high on creepy visuals and disturbing moments of torture, Goodnight Mommy, which had the original title of Ich Seh Ich Seh ('I See, I See"), is as irresistible to watch as it is difficult, which is appropriate given that much of the film is about what one can see and what one cannot. For a long period of time, it works as a drama, inching toward the more horrific elements of its story at its own pace, making sure we come to be invested in the characters along the way. It's a slow but steady descent into madness for the three members of a tight-knit family who may have already gotten to that stage long ago.
Written and directed by the team of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the imagery is indelible, from the off-putting sight of the mother in her skull-like, gauze head wrap, to the blurred images of the pictures of her on the walls, to the creepy-crawlies of hissing cockroaches that the young boys collect. There are jaunts through the nearby farmland, where brush is burned away in fire, and excursions into strange burial grounds of some sort, walking among skeletal human remains. Some may be reminded of The Babadook, though less broad in its appeal, but with similar themes of mothers and sons finding it difficult to maintain sanity when both are losing a foothold in the known and secure. It's an art-house horror film.
The story does stumble from time to time. There's an extended scene in which the home is visited by perhaps the most overzealous couple of Red Cross workers looking for a donation in the history of cinema. This should have been a sequence filled with nail-biting tension, but much of it feels quite laughable at how it plays out, so contrived that just about any other excuse to get a stranger in the house at a difficult moment wouldn't have been any less manufactured. There are a couple of reveals in the film, and they do feel gimmicky; even if you're fooled, it may be only because you expect better from a film with such artistic presentation.
With nice central performances, beautiful cinematography, a unique setting, nearly seamless effects shots, and lots of eerie developments, Goodnight Mommy may not be to every taste, but it's not an easy movie to forget for those who've seen it. I'll probably never watch it again, mostly due to several intensely brutal moments, but its unquestionable effectiveness in getting under your skin merits a recommendation for sheer effect. For a film filled with lullabies, it is unsettling enough to keep you up for the night.
©2015 Vince Leo