Director: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Cast: Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Hype is a double-edged sword. As much as it can help a film, it can also tear it to shreds. So when the Austrian psychological horror flick Goodnight Mommy was hailed as the second coming of The Babadook, I was rightfully wary. Little did I know, but that comparison was deadly accurate: just like Babadook before it, Goodnight Mommy has received an unfair reputation for being terrifying when it is merely a superbly crafted dark family drama twisting around the ideals of motherhood.
Don’t take that “merely” like it’s a bad thing. It’s not. Goodnight Mommy is a good, even great film, but going into it expecting to be scared out of your wits is inadvisable. In fact, it’s actively damaging to your appreciation of the experience. If you drink an Oreo milkshake and expect it to be strawberry, you’re not going to enjoy it despite the fact that Oreo milkshakes are the very foundation on which we build happiness. Don’t let Goodnight Mommy be that Oreo milkshake.
Brennan Klein: crushing metaphors since 1994.
In Goodnight Mommy, twins Elisa (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) begin to suspect that their mother (Susanne Wuest) is not who she says she is after she comes home from facial surgery. She has become irritable, avoids noise and light, and constantly tries to separate the brothers, attempting to drive a wedge between them. The twins investigate, endeavoring to discover who or what has taken up residence in their house, hiding her face behind the bandages.
Is she a vampire? A doppelgänger? Kim Kardashan? The list gets worse and worse.
At its core, Goodnight Mommy is a film about identity. The bond between a mother and son is strong, but can it withstand the kind of doubt that erupts when you discover that proving someone’s identity isn’t as cut and dry as it seems? Behind the face and behind the words, is there something sinister lurking within the people you know and love? There’s no way to ever prove that for certain, and doubt can slowly eat away at you like a worm chomping its way through a book. The big question is: What can the worm do to you once it breaches your defenses? Is your mental book sturdy like Anna Karenina or as flimsy as Green Eggs and Ham?
This drip torture of uncertainty is effective, but results in a perilously slow burning movie. It elevates its tension in deliberately methodical strides, requiring utmost patience of its audience. This patience is worth it thanks to an unexpected payoff, but the buildup isn’t disposable by a long shot. Rather than focusing on scares, Goodnight Mommy constructs its world with clean, clinical precision, every element pointing to its singular theme.
The set design is phenomenal with its off-white house full of modern furniture and devoid of warmth, but the cherry on top is the wall artwork, which depicts faceless shadowy figures. These prints, which were presumably bought from the IKEA in Hell, accentuate the diabolically creepy atmosphere something fierce. But the real tour de force here is the cinematography, which 1) utilizes more silhouette than an iPod commercial in the mid-2000’s, 2) isn’t afraid to plunge the audience into a pitch black frame without warning, and 3) knows how to frame something precisely so we can’t look away.
You could say it’s the 2 Girls 1 Cup of cinema.
Goodnight Mommy also boasts a buried sublevel of additional symbolism. Different people will discover deeper messages depending on their backgrounds, but you don’t have to be Austrian or religious to know that a dude holding a pitchfork and surrounded by blazing fire ain’t supposed to be the milkman. I’ll let you discover the film’s details for yourself should you choose to watch it, but there’s a treasure trove available to those willing to hunt for it.
And when the time comes for the true horror to begin, it hits with the impact of a rainstorm of dumbbells. Without spoilers, the third act is not quite as cerebrally mortifying as the ethereal shocks leading up to it (thanks to inspiration from a surprising subgenre), but it’s so viscerally bold that several of the audience members I was seated with had to get up and leave. If that’s not a sign of an effective horror movie, I don’t know what is.
Unfortunately, the shift required to attain the power of the finale throws the film off balance a little bit. It rights itself quickly and never stops keeping you guessing (even when you think you have things figured out, it remains unnervingly difficult to hold onto your convictions), but that brief slip reveals some of the uglier sides of Goodnight Mommy: namely, occasionally uneven pacing and an inability to say no to ideas that shouldn’t necessarily have remained in the final draft of the script.
Like the damn bugs. Just kidding. The bugs are great. I hate bugs.
But however may rough patches Goodnight Mommy has, it’s a well-oiled machine of psychological torment. For all its earned comparisons to The Babadook (which, to be honest, I personally like a great deal more), it forges its own path as a twisted, beautiful portrait of a shattered family. Motherhood isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes it’s poopy diapers, creepy face masks, and crippling doubt. I’m glad we have another film in the pantheon that’s is willing to admit that.
TL;DR: Goodnight Mommy is a cerebral, twisted, visceral psychological horror that’s a little too slow for its own good.
Rating: 7/10 – it might rise to 8 upon a rewatch, but no promises.
Word Count: 956