For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
More than any other movie genre, horror tends to benefit most from sensationalist headlines recapping hyperbolic audience reactions from initial screenings. Terrifier 2, which is still playing in theaters at the moment, has reportedly been making viewers faint and vomit at the cinema. Earlier this year, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future was, according to one source, expected to cause walk-outs and panic attacks in moviegoers.
When Goodnight Mommy premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2014, it didn’t provoke responses quite as extreme as those other films. But by the time it was released in the United States over a year later, the Austrian import had nevertheless developed a formidable reputation for itself as a disturbing tour de force in familial horror.
The film begins with twin brothers Lukas and Elias (played by real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz) racing around playing games outside their home in the countryside. Their mother (played by Susanne Wuest) soon returns from a cosmetic surgery procedure that has left her face and hair covered in creepy bandages. Aside from her off-putting appearance, her demeanor is more strict than usual and her punishments of the boys more severe, too. The changes are drastic enough that the twins become obsessed with the notion that this woman may not be their mom and may instead be some kind of imposter who has taken her place. Determined to learn the truth, Lukas and Elias take drastic measures to find out what is really going on.
Goodnight Mommy is psychological horror in the most pure sense because it chiefly concerns how one idea, no matter how strange or unlikely, can consume our thoughts and minds. The seeds of doubt beg for water to grow roots, and watching the tree blossom as an outside observer can be a terrifying process. By the time the twins realize how far they’ve been taken with this conviction that a stranger could be posing as their mother, it’s already far too late. This certainly isn’t the most violent horror film out there, but the context of its bloodshed makes it more squirm-inducing than movies in which random bystanders meet grisly ends. We know these three characters so well before the acts of violence begin, which makes it more difficult to endure.
This is a testament to the steadfast trio of performances at the movie’s heart that draws us further into the excruciating mystery at the center of the story. Wuest and the Schwarzes play characters that have quite a few ugly traits; Mother is often sullen and stern after her arrival home, where the boys are often mischievous and disobedient even before they begin their nefarious investigation. The unsettling material that comes later in the movie doesn’t work unless we already have empathy for these people first, and the performers put in the work to give us those emotional stakes. For some, this family may just be too cold-blooded to garner much sympathy, but I found their struggle to be as enthralling as it was heartbreaking.
Goodnight Mommy is the fictional feature debut for Austrian filmmaking duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala after a documentary they made together two years prior. The influence of fellow Austrian director Michael Haneke, specifically his psychological thrillers Funny Games and Caché, can be felt throughout Franz and Fiala’s unshakable chiller. Like Haneke, the pair understands that absence of stimulus can be much more frightening than too much. The rural lake house that serves as the film’s primary location is devoid of any decorative sentimentalities on the inside or outside that would seem even vaguely comforting. The set design is stark and utilitarian, with every edge of the interiors cut with the kind of clinical precision presumably used during the inciting surgical event.
This chilly aesthetic also applies to the brilliantly sparing music score by Olga Neuwirth, which allows the terror to build organically in every scene and doesn’t give into easy moments to jolt the audience. The sound design follows suit, giving us enough space between the sonic peaks and valleys to fill our own interpretation to what could be happening behind a door or on the other side of a wall. Some horror movies indulge overly quiet moments to set up a jump scare, but Goodnight Mommy follows a different rhythm that may throw off American audiences. Not all European horror films are this patient, but the ones that are can be unbearably tense.
It’s no surprise that an international horror movie as effective as this one would generate an American remake but it’s a bit surprising that it wasn’t released with a bit more fanfare behind it. Matt Sobel’s Goodnight Mommy was unceremoniously dumped just last month onto Amazon Prime Video, a service that’s still working on building up the quality of its original films. Naomi Watts (who, fittingly enough, starred in the U.S. remake of Funny Games) plays the maternal role while Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti play the twin brothers. This new take may work for those who haven’t seen the original, but after being so thoroughly taken with it seven years ago, it was hard for me to see the redo as anything but inferior by comparison.
Sobel’s film simultaneously pulls punches where it counts and overplays its hand when it could stand to be more subtle. The thornier subject matter has been cut back so much that it robs the story of its visceral impact and misses the point of what made the original so shocking. The broad strokes of the narrative remain the same, but it follows a more Americanized arc that rushes to console us when things get a little too scary. The overbearing music score by Alex Weston supports this notion, telling us exactly how we should feel instead of nudging us into the dark corners to explore. The ending of this new version is meant to leave audiences with the sentiment that “Hey, everything might be OK after all!” Comparatively, the final shot from the Austrian original is so eerie that it still haunts me to this day.