With its haunting and cryptic trailer, its word of mouth hype and extremely limited release, Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy couldn’t have been presented more tantalizingly if it tried. Miraculously, it wound up playing a small theater not far from me — so I biked over like a giddy schoolkid, grabbed a beer (the theater serves beer, by the way), and took a seat.
The film centers on two brothers, Lukas and Elias, living on a remote plot of land in a sprawling, modern home with their mother, a noted Austrian TV personality. The film begins when the mother returns from a brief stay at a hospital where she has just had some cosmetic surgery done. Puffy, red-eyed, and wrapped in bloody bandages, the mother looks like something from a horror movie, and her behavior upon returning home is less than maternal. Almost immediately the brothers become suspicious that perhaps this actually isn’t their mother after all, and from that point on they do everything in their power to find out who this mysterious stranger really is.
Goodnight Mommy is a very sparse film, one that relies on taking its time to build suspense. Some might call it drawn out or a super slow burn, but it’s a very visual film so it never feels long, necessarily. At times it feels as though it’s simply comprised of a series of disturbing and beautiful images, strung together in order to relay a story — and that makes for a very interesting watch. Even the most innocuous shots — the brothers following a combine harvester and swatting away the dust; the brothers jumping on a trampoline while it hails outside — still seem to be hiding something. It’s all very artfully done and manages to build an incredible sense of unease, despite how innocent it all seems. To me, that’s good filmmaking. I mentioned in one of my last reviews how a lot of time the way a film is shot actually takes precedence over the material contained therein. This is a fine example of that. Yes, the story here is interesting and keeps you guessing — but if it were shot any other way it would lose a lot of its punch.
Now, watching Goodnight Mommy I was immediately reminded of another film — one I won’t name lest I spoil some of the fun (if you insist, though, you can find numerous threads on IMDB that are blatantly titled.) But that unnamed movie and this one merely share an obvious plot point that average reviewers seem to keep getting hung up on. What these viewers appear to be missing is something I found far more interesting: the theme of the imagination of youth. I was reminded of movies like The Reflecting Skin and The Spirit of the Beehive — films where the child leads are so wrapped up in their developing imaginations that it affects their sense of reality. To these kids, their daydream visions are real; To Lukas and Elias, their mother is a monster, no matter how she explains or defends herself — and that’s terrifying. The fact that we’ve all experienced that sort of thing when we were growing up — real monsters under the bed, real monsters in the closet, real monsters — makes it a much more real and jarring watch.
In the end, Goodnight Mommy manages to pay homage to several films — whether knowingly or not — but thankfully they all happen to be wonderful, beautiful, and truly scary movies indeed. I don’t think you’ll find another film this year that will fill you with so much dread and edginess and just flat out fear as Goodnight Mommy. From the moment it starts up until the last scene, it’s nothing but bad vibes and foreboding. This is a do not miss, for sure.