Creepy twins? Check. Domineering mother? Check. Frightening masks? Hissing cockroaches? A newly acquired pet? A priest? A cemetery? Cornfields? Plot twist? All present and accounted for. Goodnight Mommy contains some timeworn horror movie tropes, but instead of relying on clichés, it elevates the formula. The sampling synthesizes these elements into something entirely new and surprisingly innovative. Horror, arthouse cinema or psychological thriller, it’s all of these and more. I dare say within its framework, I faced a small handful of the most uniquely disquieting images I have ever seen. You can’t unsee these things. The concepts are creatively unsettling.
Goodnight Mommy is the first narrative feature from filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Ever since it had its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie has built up a solid reputation of positive buzz. In September it was even submitted as Austria’s 2015 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Flashback: fellow countryman Michael Haneke’s Amor won the award for Austria back in 2012. Interestingly Goodnight Mommy actually recalls the chilly isolation of Michael Haneke’s work, particularly with his Funny Games. Even the similar setting, a gorgeous estate by the lake, is incongruously tranquil for a horror flick.
The writer-director team of Franz and Fiala take the sacred bond that exists between a mother and her children and shatters it to pieces. In their deconstruction, the chronicle plays out slowly, but at the climax, the dysfunction reaches a boiling point. Elias and Lukas are nine-year-old twin boys enjoying the summer in a modernist lake house made of steel and glass. Things seem fairly idyllic until mother shows up. Father is not in the picture. Mother’s appearance is obscured, her face wrapped in bandages, apparently the result of some facial surgery. She is a television presenter so perhaps the procedures were cosmetic. Regardless, her presence now vexes the children. She regresses into more irritable and oppressive, almost malicious, behavior. Is this woman their mother or is she an impostor? The boys have their doubts. What follows is an exploration of identity and trust.
To give any more plot details would be to spoil the delight of discovery. Oh and believe me, this spine-chiller has a few shocking developments. The drama travels down a twisty path that grows ever more grotesque. The descent is so gradual that for most of the duration I was completely on board. The eerie trip mostly relies on psychological horror. If the directors make an error, it’s that they ultimately show more than they should. The flirtation with gore is enough. By the end, the plunge into Grand Guignol crosses the line. Only once, okay maybe twice. The impropriety betrays the dominant milieu of the picture.
In this genre, what often separates the wheat from the chaff is the visual lexicon, that is – the discernible style of the director which is then boldly captured by the cinematographer. Here they artfully flaunt a narrative that manifests anxiety. The dread is palpable. The fact that the ambiguous story is created without much clarification intensifies the air of disorientation. Granted there are a lot of red herrings that purposefully mislead the viewer in ways that don’t always play fair. I still have no idea what that pizza delivery was about. But in a production such as this, the misdirection only heightens the unease. The script skillfully undermines the strength of the familial bonds we hold dear. I won’t soon forget the experience. I just have one nagging question: Why are the Red Cross volunteers in Austria so aggressive?