Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Even if the details of Goodnight Mommy, the Austrian chiller from co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are unclear, the basics couldn’t be straightforward enough: twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) are suspicious of their mother (Suzanne West). She comes home from facial surgery with a countenance covered in bandages, and the boys suspect that she’s actually an impostor. Her inability to recognize herself when one of them makes her “Mama” in the Post-It celebrity guessing game (in a scene whose economy would make Quentin Tarantino jealous) fuels their suspicions, as do her harsh discipline tactics. From there, most of the film consists of a chamber play in which the boys’ suspicions mount and she denies them. Naturally, her denials provoke them even more, and their desire to expose her for what she is gradually becomes more and more malicious.
Who’s telling the truth here? A scene of the mother convulsing alone in the woods invokes archetypical cinematic depictions of werewolf transformations, suggesting the presence of supernatural elements, but Goodnight Mommy is too smart to tell the viewer one way or the other for most of its running time. Instead, the film concentrates on the overpowering horror of the situation it depicts: after a mother engages in discipline methods which seem harsh, her sons respond with unspeakable actions.
This could all be easily exploitable for shock value, but Franz and Fiala are smart to mostly steer clear of cheap frights. Goodnight Mommy has a horrifying concept at its core (a mother and children being pitted against one another), and Franz and Fiala are content to let its disturbing implications wash over the viewer. The film doesn’t completely avoid gruesome imagery, but it saves most of it for the final act, at which point the gore resonates with its full potential.
The themes of Goodnight Mommy recall Jennifer Kent’s terrifying The Babadook, and the two films certainly aren’t out of place with one another. Both films evoke the horrors of parenting, and neither places the blame squarely on the child or the parent. This approach feels more representative of the parent-child relationship than the “devil child” narrative of, say, The Exorcist: both the parent and the child bear some responsibility for the ensuing horror. In The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy, the lack of willingness on the part of the filmmakers to choose a side ultimately leads the viewer to see both as being at fault.
Regardless of who’s responsible, there’s an inherently visceral terror in the story of Goodnight Mommy, and Franz and Fiala keep that as the film’s focus. Watching two children turn against their mother is a disturbing sight, and the claustrophobia of the film’s setting allows the full horror of the situation to sink in. In fact, the weakest point in Goodnight Mommy comes when it briefly brings two Red Cross workers into the story, in a scene which feels lifted from a goofier, less single-minded film.
Still, this scene is only a brief break in a film which is otherwise marked by slow-moving, but nonetheless relentless, horror. The pace does an effective job of building the dread, as the tension mounts in the relationship between the mother and her boys. Something’s definitely happenin’ in here, even if what it is ain’t always exactly clear.
And since this film’s strengths lie in its atmosphere more than anything else, it’s hard to complain about the lack of clarity. Goodnight Mommy is an unsettling experience, but it’s more than worth the discomfort for viewers game to endure it.