In the midst of a wooden expanse and set just on the outskirts of an idyllic lake, lay a mammoth piece of modern architecture. It’s a stark structure, geometrically designed and void of color and warmth. This building, which should be an inviting home — a place for family and love — looks more like a prison, and its characterless façade is a tactile reminder of isolation and distance standing in the place of comfort. This is the theme will form the backbone in Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy, an arthouse horror-thriller that follows twin brother’s who grow suspicious that there mother isn’t who she says she is.
Like the eerie house in the woods, the children’s Mother is an ambiguous figure. When the film opens, she is healing from an accident and wrapped in bandages (conjuring up images of Eyes Without a Face and The Skin I Live In). However, it’s not only her appearance that is stranger, her behavior is erratic as well. She is needlessly cruel to her children, completely ignoring one of them while berating the other. She is diametrically opposed to everything a mother is believed to stand for. But all is not what it seems in that strange secluded house, and the children put it to task to get to the bottom of it; the result is a horrifying tale of maternal horror that pries at important question, without explicitly resulting in definitive answers.
Goodnight Mommy premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2014, and went on to become a critic darling during its lengthy run on the festival circuit, including screenings at TIFF, Sitges (Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver winner), Rotterdam, and Fantasia. As it gained notoriety, word continued to spread around the community that Goodnight Mommy was becoming the film to look out for. When the film prepped for its US theatrical release, it seemed that every publication was clamoring to capitalize on the press that Goodnight Mommy had the scariest trailer of all time. A surefire sign of the clickbait-style of journalism that plagues current publications, this reputation had an unfortunate backfire on the film. Principally, while the trailer made Goodnight Mommy out to be a scary horror film, the reality is the film is not all that scary, at least not in the modern, conventional way — nor is it trying to be.
Rather, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s script is far more interested in psychological questions of identity than it is looking to exploit atmosphere for conventional gain. It sits comfortably in line with its contemporaries like The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, falling somewhere between the tension of the former and the artistry of the latter. Like the genre expectations that preceeded it, Goodnight Mommy also had a big name to live up to. By the time of its limited theatrical release it was already a hot contender, so when the Blu-ray via Anchor Bay dropped last week there was already such a build up behind it that the film could hardly stand to live up to the hype. Thanks to the strengths of the Austrian-born filmmakers, Goodnight Mommy is mostly successful in meeting expectations, but does falter in a few spots.
As the story develops and the children grow increasingly more suspicious of their mother, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala ramp up the tension beautifully. The base theme, the fear that your parents are not who they say they are, is pervasive in the horror genre. It conjures up one of the most primal fears humans have, by exploiting the upmost exemplar of comfort and nurture as, instead, a figure of fear. Their filmmaking borrows elements from fellow countryman Michael Haneke, in the cold (nearly calculated) distance created between the images and the viewer. Yet, one must not overstate the Haneke influence, because beyond a few stylistic similarities, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are far from following in Haneke’s footsteps. One aspect that really works, was Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s choice to position viewer’s in the headspace of the young boys, who are expertly played by real life twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz. Through the dialogue we are slowly able to piece together the events that lead to their suspicion, but by the time everything clicks, it is too late for any positive outcome. This is one aspect that makes the film so chilling: once audiences fully realize the stakes, there is nothing that can be done about it and we must watch it unfold in all its horror.
Somewhat inexplicitly, and this is where the film may lose certain viewers, Goodnight Mommy changes tone of voice in a drastic way about half way through. While the beginning third of the film is a terse, psychological portrait that seems to be interested in notions of class and identity — numerous shots of characters looking in mirrors, doubles, reflections, etc —, at a certain point, the boys decide to take action into their own hands and tie up the women they believe is pretending to be their mother. It gets dangerously close to ‘torture porn’ at times, but saves from being so by never fully reveling in the act of torture. Yet, the length that we are forced to watch the Mother’s suffering, including seeing her wade in her own excrement, drags on a bit longer than needed to make its point and, after awhile, it begins to feel uneven and calls the intentions into question.
It’s safe to say that — without divulging into spoiler territory — Goodnight Mommy suffers a bit from what could be called High-Tension-syndrome, where a film’s ending somewhat calls into question the ways that the filmmakers intentionally tricked you along the way. While Goodnight Mommy doesn’t come close to the lunacy of High Tension, the reveal in the final act (while somewhat obvious) also exposes a few weaknesses in the writing. Even with a suspension of disbelief, it becomes very hard to accept much of the first act with the newfound information, and it really calls into question a great deal of the dialogue and actions along the way. This could have been easily handled through a stronger script and blocking from the directors but, as is, feels a bit underdeveloped and almost cheap.
This fairly large conflict aside, Goodnight Mommy still stands as one of the best horror films of the year. It’s clear that Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala appreciate all levels of filmmaking, from pure exploitation to prestige arthouse and, because of this, the film never feels like it is talking down to either its viewers or the genre itself. Goodnight Mommy should be on all horror and thriller fans watch list this year, as, even with its faults, it remains one of the more interesting efforts to see release in 2015. There is a great deal to absorb from watching the film and, even if they aren’t always successful, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have crafted a film that demands repeat viewings. It’s a work that I feel my appreciation for will grow but only time can tell. As it stands, Goodnight Mommy isn’t the horror film of the year, but it sure gives the others a run for their money.
Goodnight Mommy is now available on Blu-ray via Anchor Bay