Written and Directed by: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Starring: Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz
While plenty of critical acclaim has come its way, Goodnight Mommy has been questioned as to whether or not it is mislabeled as a horror film. Yes, the trailer indicated something more along the lines of a conventional jump scare movie. No, this isn’t quite that. But there’s no need for alarm; we’ve been given something better. This is the horror film which deconstructs the safe haven of a home and injects any potential for extreme friction between its residents.
The Austrian film centers on two twin boys enjoying summer at home. Days are spent jumping on a trampoline or simply running around. Their mother returns after surgery from an accident, with a face completely wrapped in bandages. She insists that she needs undisturbed rest and quiet, but the boys quickly suspect this is not the mother they remember.
Our initial introduction to the mother shows her standing by a window, playing with the shades. When she turns to face the boys, her face resembles a ghost more than an actual person, and it’s not until she steps closer that we recognize it as bandages.
Exposing only her mouth and eyes, the alien appearance gives the same sense of unnerve as any Halloween mask. The film shifts perspectives as we see the mother spying on the kids and vice versa. A sense of mystery slowly intertwines with paranoia as the childrens’ suspicion of the mother juxtaposes her own fear of the boys’ reservation.
Aside from a few eerie dream sequences, the fear in the film rises from the boiling tension between the three characters. The ever-growing disconnect suggests an eruption which comes in the second half when the boys take the offense. The audience is presented an array of horrific images in the form of violent torture the boys inflict onto the mother.
The term “torture porn” is usually met with negative connotations. Grisly imagery doesn’t necessarily equate to suspense or genuine fear. Fortunately, directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz display a perfect equilibrium of visual shock and atmospheric dread. They know when to keep the camera off the torture and when to show it in full. Such vile moments include cutting the mother’s mouth open after super gluing it shut. These scenes are deliberately shocking and work both to make you cringe and to escalate the tension. Against the mother’s crying plea that she is, in fact, their mother, the boys are certain this is not true and torture is the only viable means of getting the truth out of her.
While this is nothing less than gruesome, the film never exploits these scenes. The imagery is quick and fierce, leaving a lasting impression without overstaying its welcome. This is not the unending schlock-fest we’ve seen in the Saw franchise or anything directed by Eli Roth. This is actually closer to body horror in the fashion of David Cronenberg. The filmmakers realize how devastating the imagery is and forcing you to watch heightens the terror of the situation. The film structures itself almost as a home invasion thriller, though one without an intruder. Shots of empty rooms throughout the house are paralleled with the vast openness of the woods around, a sense of isolation familiar in the genre. The camera captures colorful outdoor scenery which sharply contrasts the dull, muted tones of the home. Claustrophobia increases as the family members become inescapable from one another’s clutches. A few moments, including a visit from the Red Cross, help alleviate the trauma but don’t derail the anxiety.
Some will surely find the ending too predictable. This may be the case, but it does not feel cheap or gimmicky. If anything, the final minutes are the exclamation point of this household’s destruction and the family’s doom we’ve been witnessing for over ninety minutes. This is where the shock truly lies, the horror which stays with you long after the credits roll. — James Leggett