Words: Rob DeStefano
Horror has had a solid run on small scales over the past year: The Babadook, The Guest, and It Follows. Wider releases, not so much. In 2015 alone, The Lazarus Effect, The Gallows, and Sinister 2 amassed a median critic ranking (using that fallible but convenient Rottentomatoes) of 14.3%. Naturally, we turn back to the indies and the foreign installments in hopes of satisfying our horror fix with something north of 14%. Enter Austrian film Goodnight Mommy.
During the the dog days of summer, child twins Lukas and Elias (played by the Schwarz boys) pass time by roving through their property’s cornfields, slapping each other in the face, and performing other common youth activities like collecting cockroaches and visiting underground burial plots. When Mommy (Susanne Wuest) comes home, her face concealed behind layers of gauze from an unknown procedure, she gives them explicit instructions to behave while she rests. Mommy is apparently in a feud with Lukas and sends him to bed without supper. As the days progress, Mommy’s face still obscured, the twins become increasingly suspicious as to whom this woman really is. Their real mother sang them lullabies. Their real mother didn’t hold a grudge against one. New Mommy kills their cockroaches and locks them in their bedroom.
This movie works on so many levels, but on a visceral scale, watching inquisitive and capable children conduct this insane investigation and trial was exhilarating. When the events start to escalate, the filmmakers find humor in the behavior of these little rascals – a trademark of smart horror (e.g. all three films mentioned in the first sentence of this review). It is always, always refreshing to see characters act intelligently and avoid the common trappings of, “Let’s give ‘Mommy’ this gun!” Writing/Directing duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz take this character competency and utilize it for macabre twists.
And what a twisted experience Goodnight Mommy is. The story plays with ambiguity for most of its run, giving the audience enough pieces (with a few more obvious notes at the end) to fill in the blanks. I was afraid going into this that it would play like a modern, all-elusive fable similar to last year’s Borgman. I’m thankful this was not the case. No matter how the events stretch, they’re constantly rooted in a thematic focus on family and identity. The latter is mainly demonstrated through Mommy herself. We’re to believe she is or was a television face – a cheap incarnation of Vanna White. When we see her room’s entrance, the shot is rarely without her vintage mannequin stand. Gazing into the mirror, she tugs on her dress and exposes regions of flesh for deeper analysis.
The film makes use of quiet and calm cinematography, a clash that gives style to the wild events without stripping them of their urgency; when colors do punctuate its sterile appearance, it makes it all the more visually alarming. Susanne Wuest, masked for the majority, uses her physicality well (think Michael Fassbender in Frank). The twins are the centerpiece of Goodnight Mommy and are both excellent at counterbalancing wounded and flippant attitudes. There’s a reason horror is so beloved. When it is done correctly, it is infectious. I am optimistic that we’ll see at least one or two more examples of its power before the close of 2015.
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