Starring: Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest
Director: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Twin boys living in an isolated ultra-modernist house in the remote Austrian countryside welcome their mother back from hospital where she has undergone extensive facial surgery. As time passes, with their mother’s face totally concealed behind bandages, they start to notice a difference in her attitude toward them and begin to suspect she isn’t who she professes to be. Their investigations raise puzzles they can’t solve and which their mother stubbornly and aggressively seems unwilling to discuss. The key question being that if she isn’t their mother then who is she, and where is their real mother?
The first half hour of Goodnight Mommy is like being shot at by a tachist blunderbuss containing every horror trick in the book; creepy twins, an isolated house, a bandaged face, a dense pine wood, mysterious unused railway tunnels. It begins to feel that it could very quickly become an obvious horror-by-numbers parody of every attempted B movie fright-fest ever made. Yet what the movie ingeniously does is to use the audience’s concentration on the obvious as intentional misdirection. Once the story starts to unfold, you realise that the focus on the parodical has given a very clever storyline time to slowly burn underneath. Once the first twist is served up, it cleverly refocuses attentions purely to the narrative, in which you suddenly find yourself totally engrossed.
That’s not to say the creepiness is forgotten, quite the opposite, it is simply achieved in a much subtler and artful way. The Shining-esque Kubrickian isolated symmetrical cinematography and the virtual lack of any soundtrack or background noise forces every one of the senses to concentrate purely on what is developing visually. At some stages it is so tense and noiseless that a cough from the cinema audience causes mass panic. Goodnight Mommy constantly sends you down intentional dead ends and false paths, just before pulling you by the collar back along the main thoroughfare, and it feels like a wonderful, if perfectly unnerving, journey.
The acting of the two Schwarz brothers (who spookily have the same first names as their characters) is generally excellent but on occasion there is a hint of woodenness, especially during the extended facial shots required to build the tension. Yet in some ways, this stiffness works to the films advantage as it seems to increase the strangeness in the boy’s characters.
As the film moves into its second half, it is genuinely hopeless to attempt to fathom what end is being worked toward, so extensively have the characters progressed through a multiplicity of emotions, revelations and suspicions. As you approach the ending, you find yourself desperately seeking explanation and closure, and only in the last five minutes do you get it.
Goodnight Mommy is a genuinely disturbing and unsettling film and is expertly written and filmed by a team who evidently know how to make a great disconcerting horror movie. Would-be horror writers could do a lot worse than spend their research time watching this movie over and over again.
8 / 10