Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Maybe a couple of times a year there comes a horror non-horror fans like too (they generally become ‘psychological thrillers with supernatural undertones’). Goodnight Mommy is one of them. Having won many plaudits since its premier in Venice (2014), this Austrian chiller joins modern masterpieces The Babadook and It Follows as one of the genre’s most credible offerings in years.
This dark fairy tale focuses on the inseparable bond between identical twin boys Lukas and Elias (played by real-life twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz) who spend their time running in lakes and running between rows of corn in the idyllic countryside. Sure, they do some of the usual creepy kid stuff, like collect beetles and crawl around caves full of bones. But generally their life’s a care-free one. That’s until the arrival of a bandaged figure (Wuest) who may or may not be their TV-personality mother, back from a session of cosmetic surgery. Supposedly a once warm woman, she’s now as remote as the family house and very difficult to get on with. When she appears to play favourites, turning against the more troublesome of the duo (Lukas), the pair decide to get to the bottom of who she really is. And whilst I appreciate this premise may sound a little Famous Five, I assure you it gets very ugly very fast.
It’s of great credit to the film that, as the mystery escalates, viewers will constantly revise their allegiances between the possible mother and her maybe kids. This switching comes because neither party is acting entirely normally – she seems as right to be worried about them as they are to be suspicious of her. In limiting the cast to just the core three, save for a couple of brief scenes, we get to know the characters well and come to understand their conflicts, that are played out against a haunting backdrop of stillness and silence. Consequently, the third act, whilst relentlessly brutal in its depiction of familial torture, maintains an intensity that’s as emotional as it is physical. Despite events occasionally looking set to descend into trashiness, the directorial team of Fiala and Franz have crafted a piece that works, for the most part, excellently. At its best it also goes to great lengths to takes audience identification into unnerving new territory, with moments of real threat to both sides.
Unfortunately what feels less fresh is a twist I suspect most audience members will have guessed long before the first act. I thought I’d figured it out within the opening 15 minutes and looked for evidence on the contrary but was gutted to find none. Truly it’ll seem blatant to all but the least trope-literate fans. And whilst it’s not enough to dampen the film’s overall impact, it certainly makes much of the midsection feel a slog, as the script blatantly lines its characters up for the finale like chess pieces. Sadly the crafting’s not so much that of a grandmaster as it is kids playing flick rules. Since watching I’ve seen others suggest the twist isn’t even meant to be one – given how telegraphed it is. Rather they think it’s meant to work in the way of a tragic inevitability. Yet if this is the case Goodnight Mommy desperately needs more dramatic background beats to accompany its revelation-heavy finale. In their absence the script steals disappointment from the jaws of excellence, becoming a great horror that’s frustratingly closer to classic than most. Consequently I’m left thinking one of the most credible genre pieces of recent years is likely to really impress everyone except seasoned genre fans.