One of the more pleasant cinematic developments of the past few years has been the creative rebirth of the horror genre. After a period that produced almost nothing but rehashed versions of the tired tropes of the past, a new wave of filmmakers has started making works that are both imaginative and scary. Many of the best examples of this trend, including The Babadook and It Follows, have triumphed by bringing the genre’s classic subtexts (like families and sex) to the surface. Goodnight Mommy, the new Austrian shocker, draws strength from the eternal complexity of the often-fraught relationship between parents and children.
Nine-year-old twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) are spending the summer at the family’s ultra-modern country house with their mother (Susanne Wuest). Mother, a TV personality who has just had facial plastic surgery, has isolated them from the world while she waits for the scars to heal. In the meantime, her face is hidden behind a patchwork of bandages. The boys, who are largely left to their own devices, soon begin to develop an intense suspicion that the short-tempered woman hiding in her darkened bedroom with the blinds drawn is not really their mother but an impostor who has taken her place. When Elias and Lukas begin to test their theory, events spiral out of control building to a shocking conclusion that will leave more sensitive viewers hiding behind their fingers yet unable to look away.
From the gripping opening which features an excerpt from the Austrian version of The Sound of Music with the Von Trapp family singing the famous lullaby “Guten Abend, Gute Nacht,” first-time filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala keep viewers wonderfully off-balance. They employ a cool distant style that brings out the story’s magnificent creepiness while also providing an effective contrast to the film’s violent finale. They are well assisted by a brilliant cast highlighted by Elias and Lukas Schwarz as the twin brothers. Their controlled performances maintain the ambiguity at the center of this playfully terrifying flick: Have the brothers perceptively discovered that their mother has been replaced or have they gone mad?
Franz and Fiala wittily satirize Austrians’ unwillingness to communicate with each other, which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Franz’s work as a screenwriter for controversial Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl (who served as producer for Goodnight Mommy). However, the emotional core of the film is the highly charged relationship between mother and children, vividly illustrating how the intense neediness of that bond can degenerate into paranoia and rage if trust has been betrayed. Goodnight Mommy is a delightfully wicked chiller. Utilizing a child’s perspective, a wonderfully off-kilter sense of humor and a disturbing vision of an evil stepmother, the film plays out like a demented fairy tale. No true horror movie fan will want to miss this unsettling tale of terror.