An art house horror export from Austria, ‘Goodnight Mommy’ is an intriguing little scare picture designed more to slither up the spine through mood than show anything overtly graphic (well, at first anyway). The movie doesn’t even have a score, just a creepy concept and overbearing atmosphere that slide audiences into a trance before the twisted games of family horror begin.
The film is an effective piece of work for those who can get into the bizarre tale that co-writers/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz weave in a rhythm that’s entirely their own.
The film stars twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz as a pair of brothers living in an isolated country home with their mother (Susanne Wuest). She’s a TV presenter whose career is on the rocks, which leads to some plastic surgery that leaves her face completely bandaged. The family used to live in the city, but she moves them out to a concrete home in the middle of nowhere to recover from her surgery and wallow in narcissistic depression. The boys do their best to distract themselves through play, but their mother’s increasingly erratic and selfish behavior puts them into a funk. In fact, they barely even recognize their mother anymore and start to question whether this bandaged creature is really her.
Fiala and Franz unfold their story through the irregular rhythms and rich imagination of childhood play. There’s little to no backstory explored and reality is subjective to the boy’s experience. The filmmakers cleverly build mood through atmospheric sound design and increasingly dreadful situations, without the aid of music or even much conventional dramatic structure. Something feels off from the beginning and only seems to get worse. The relationship between a fragile/self-obsessed mother and her morbidly imaginative boys (whose hobbies include burning their pet cockroaches with a magnifying glass) is frayed from the start. Wrapped in a bandage like another type of mummy, Wuest comes off as a domineering figure with possibly supernatural inclinations. That is of course if we’re meant to take any of the film literally.
One of the most fascinating and entrancing choices the filmmakers make is to unfold the story subjectively for quite some time. Sure, it’s clear that the movie is shot from the kids’ perspective, but whether that perspective is cracked is difficult to tell until it’s too late. While the movie thrives on mood and discomfort for the first hour, the final act slips into more graphic and visceral territory with unsettling results. There’s a big plot twist that anyone paying attention will see coming a mile away, but thankfully this is not an M. Night Shyamalan production that operates exclusively as a plot twist delivery system. This film has more ideas in play than that, and they explore both familial and tool box horrors with deeply disturbing results.
‘Goodnight Mommy’ certainly isn’t a horror movie for everyone. This isn’t populist genre filmmaking in any conventional sense. It unfolds like an art film until the gut punch finale and tests the limits of its viewers’ good taste and stamina. However, those willing to give themselves over to the unique spell that Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz cast will find an experience that doesn’t merely creep out viewers in the moment, but continues to do so long after stumbling out of the theater as they dwell on ideas and images they never expected to experience.