I see everything: “10 Cloverfield Lane” review

10c_oversized-1-sht_imax-700x1020 ✦ ½ of five

Cloverfield is perhaps the ur-example of a wonderful idea executed in disappointing fashion. There have been few movie concepts as immediately compelling as “Blair Witch during a kaiju attack”, and the movie gets a lot of mileage from that phrase, but in the end its characters and acting fall short, and both its beginning and ending shouldn’t be part of the story it’s telling. Couple this with the fact that we’re never given a proper justification for why the hell the cameraman is lugging around a heavy rig to film the chaos surrounding him and it’s a movie that, while effective, is ultimately unsuccessful.

The out-of-nowhere spin-off (or not) 10 Cloverfield Lane, by contrast, presents us with nearly no expectations—no buildup, no gripping high concept pitch, no real information apart from its title—and excels at what it does. Its ending has the same problems as that of its predecessor, but on the whole it’s a better movie than anyone had any right to expect from a loose Cloverfield sequel, and indeed one of the best movies of the year so far.

The biggest of Cloverfield‘s flaws that 10 Cloverfield Lane corrects is its characters. The fresh-faced yuppies that populate the former film are shallow and poorly acted, and unlike the trio of The Blair Witch Project, who are helpless and ineffectual but very much real people, we never get the sense that these characters had lives of their own before the events of the movie destroyed them. 10 Cloverfield Lane, on the other hand, runs on its players. All three are performed impressively, but John Goodman’s Howard, a paranoid survivalist who drags the other two down into his bunker due to what he claims is a biological attack up above, is far and away the reason to see the film. The plot revolves around him—is he crazy? Is he right about what’s happened? Or even worse, is he both? The depths Goodman imbues the character with render it nail-bitingly hard to tell—he’s sweet one minute, terrifying the next, and it grows increasingly difficult to determine if he’s simply emotionally unstable or genuinely unhinged. It’s unlikely he’ll be recognized at the Oscars once they roll around, but the performance more than merits a nomination, and is yet another reminder that Goodman is one of our finest character actors.

Howard’s possible abductee and definite obsession, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle follows Mad Max‘s Furiosa and Star Wars‘ Rey as yet another excellent female protagonist in recent genre filmmaking. She’s terrified, paranoid, and out of her depth, but incredibly resourceful and intelligent despite her circumstances. The film is intensely aware of her femininity—she is the only woman in a small space otherwise populated by Howard and his young assistant Emmett, and this dynamic quickly becomes unsettling. Howard vacillates between understanding and tenderness and a frightening possessiveness and desire for power, while Emmett finds himself falling for this beautiful newcomer. The clashes that inevitably result from this are deeply disquieting, taking an already latent fear of being watched to new heights. Michelle attempts to turn this tension to her advantage, and never becomes an object in the eyes of the film despite the male gaze that surrounds her. While the film’s scenario doesn’t allow it to pass the Bechdel test with particular flair, its protagonist is the latest in a string of strong feminist heroes, and it’s beautiful to behold.

There’s political subtext hard at work throughout the first Cloverfield—it’s basically 9/11: The Movie with an amphibious monster thrown in, and as a look at Ground Zero from an on-the-scene perspective it’s undeniably powerful. 10 Cloverfield Lane follows up on that taking of the nation’s pulse in as nuanced a look at conspiracy culture as is reasonable in a franchise that opens with said amphibious monster attacking New York. Howard, with all his X-Files rambling about government conspiracies and possible alien invasions, could easily be seen as a broad critique of Glenn Beck and his survivalist ilk, but the film refuses to allow us to take a smug moral or intellectual high ground over its most interesting character. After all, something is out there, and whether or not Howard is crazy doesn’t particularly alter that. The film’s final ten minutes, which show us more of the outside than I’m very happy with, puncture this ambiguity, but the political zeitgeist of today’s paranoiac society is still excellently captured in Howard and his bunker. Which is scarier, ultimately: the fact that fascists like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz are running for office, or the possibility that their insane screeds are in fact correct? And can we really blame those who don’t trust the government when it’s now common knowledge that the NSA has run roughshod over America’s civil liberties? As a fan of Occam’s Razor and an opponent of bigotry, I don’t particularly entertain the latter possibility in most cases, but the fact is that distrust of the government simply can’t be written off as the clearer absurdity that it once was.

In the moment, though, 10 Cloverfield Lane never feels political. It’s a tightly written, excellently directed character-based suspense potboiler, one that improves on its predecessor in nearly every area while maintaining its overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. I’d rather see a dozen more small-budget, well-crafted flicks like this than another tentpole in the same vein, and hopefully Bad Robot will ensure that we get them in the years to come. Its tenuous franchise ties notwithstanding (it was an original script that got the Cloverfield label slapped onto it), the film is a highly impressive work of science fiction, especially as Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut. If this is any indication, Bad Robot’s future Portal movie is in good hands.

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Fear always works: “Zootopia” review

c55463169023e916571b0361c592cd6c0f630904 of five

I wish I could still love Frozen.

When I saw it in the theatre, I was so excited. To have such a strong feminist ending to a Disney Princess movie of all things was beyond wonderful, and whether you like it or not “Let It Go” is the dictionary example for catchy tune. But the more I thought about it, and the more it exploded across the globe, the less pleased with it I was. Its worst offense has to be its lyrics—especially when compared to the work of  previous Disney stalwarts such as Howard Ashman and Stephen Schwartz, the wordplay of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez is cringingly substandard. Beyond that, the movie is the bearer of decidedly mixed messages. Elsa finally chooses to abandon responsibilities and repressed guilt thrust upon her and…this is a bad thing? The movie is undeniably a huge leap forward for Disney princess films, but as a piece of art it’s left me feeling wanting.

It was with this mindset that I walked into the theatre to see Zootopia, and the result was pleasant surprise. Here is a movie that engages with a nuanced sociopolitical issue at far greater length and with far greater coherency than Frozen does, and while it doesn’t pack a whole lot of surprises, it’s certainly a less flawed film than its predecessor. It’s by no means one of the great films of 2016, but it’s fun and engaging and packs a powerful moral lesson, which I’ll take from mainstream children’s entertainment.

The setup is simple enough—in this universe, the world is populated entirely by animals, and while predators and prey have ostensibly long since settled their differences, there’s still an underlying fear and mistrust present on both sides. Enter Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who spent the entirety of her childhood being cajoled by her nervous parents into staying on the carrot farm. She finally attends the city of Zootopia’s police academy and is made the first rabbit police officer in history, but is crestfallen to be assigned to the position of meter-maid rather than given any serious duties. Things take a turn when she encounters a fox hustler called Nick Wilde, who seems to confirm all the prejudices against foxes Judy’s parents have long held despite her best intentions. When multiple predators are kidnapped and Judy is assigned to the case at the last minute, she and Nick are forced to work together to find answers. A friendship ensues, but will societal pressures crush it?zootopia_nickwilde_and_judy_hopps_4_by_jd1680a-d9n0jt1

If there’s one thing Zootopia isn’t, it’s subtle, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s an incredibly deft handling of racial issues, especially for a children’s film (and, for all its cartoonishness, somehow less absurd than Spike Lee’s recent Chi-Raq). This is a movie that passes beyond simple moral trusims such as “racism is bad” and chooses to focus very firmly on white (prey) privilege and the moral bankruptcy of color-blindness. Judy views herself as perfectly free of prejudice, and certainly appears more enlightened than her family in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, but ultimately has to come to terms with the fact that she still, at some level, harbors deep-seated discriminatory tendencies against predators in general and Nick in particular. Nick himself is initially presented as matching Judy’s negative stereotype—he’s a conman, a “thug”—but not only does he prove to be far more complex than his character would at first suggest, he rightly points out to Judy that when all of society views you as a criminal, it’s hard not to end up going along.

Spoilers from here on out, but you’ll see them coming.

There are flaws in the movie’s socioplitical outlook, and they’re present largely in how it deals with sexism. Judy is an obvious analogy for a woman who finds it impossible to advance due to sexist stereotypes and misogynistic co-workers, and this bit of metaphor is, again, unsubtle but well-executed. The problem comes with the reveal of the film’s ultimate villain: an obfuscatingly meek sheep assistant mayor who is using predators as a common enemy to unite the workers of the world. There’s a bit of feminism and a bit of Marxism mixed in here, but they just don’t gel, first because so little time is given to the assistant mayor’s character and her position and second because, well, in a movie that’s so pleasingly progressive, this bit of apparent anti-feminist backlash is bizarre. One could read it as a critique of first-wave feminism specifically, along with its lack of intersectionality, but not enough time is devoted to the subject for any coherent position to emerge. It’s also the only twist in a movie that’s otherwise incredibly predictable in terms of story; this didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the flick, but it is one aspect in which Frozen is undeniably superior.

Also dismaying are the times the movie sinks into indulgent pop-culture references. There’s a Godfather homage about midway through that, while funny, diverts the film’s pacing and calls too much attention to itself; more obnoxious, if far more subtle, are the movie’s references to Frozen, which again pull the viewer out of the film. It’s not by any means a crippling tactic, but it’s used just enough that it grows tiresome.

These problems notwithstanding, Zootopia is easily the best Disney Animation film in years, and unfortunately its political message won’t fade into irrelevance anytime soon. Take your kids to it and start a conversation, go see it yourself for the lush animation and the excellent vocal performances. And if any foxes approach you on the way into the theatre, give ’em a wave.

 

 

Once you get into cosmological shit like this, you got to throw away the instruction manual (“It” postmortem: cosmogony)

tripping-in-the-deadlights_440One of the poorer artistic decisions in the history of genre fiction was August Derleth’s retconning of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos (a term which Derleth himself coined) from cosmic horror to cosmic religion, taking Lovecraft’s posthumanist universe of human insignificance and transforming it into the stage for a titanic battle between Good—the Elder Gods of Derleth’s invention—and Evil—the Great Old Ones such as Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep. The most resonant and influential aspect of Lovecraft’s stories is the fact that the Great Old Ones are not evil, but completely amoral—they commit horrible deeds against humanity not out of malice but out of a complete lack of recognition of human sentience. In fact, it’s rather tiresome of me to even type the former sentence, the philosophical core of Lovecraft’s tales is so widely known. It’s fortunate that Derleth’s attempt to trample on this posthumanism have been largely forgotten, but the fact that he made it remains an artistic blunder of baffling proportions.

The mythology of It takes a similar baffling swerve deep into its length. It’s not nearly as disastrous as Derleth’s meddlings—the point of King’s novel is not that the universe is a horrifyingly uncaring place—but it’s a bizarre choice, and in addition to weakening Pennywise it firmly shifts the novel’s genre out of the horrific and into the fantastic as discussed in the introduction to this series.

I have to wonder if the decision to introduce the influence of the Turtle came as the result of planning for the Dark Tower series, or if King conceived of it separately and only later decided to weld it onto the behemoth retcon that is that series’ continuity. The former explanation would make the sudden shift into cosmicism a lot more understandable, but I don’t necessarily think it’s feasible; The Waste Lands, the book that introduced the concept of the Turtle and Shardik and numerous other massive animals as guardians of the Beams, wasn’t published until 1991, five years after It. Couple this with King’s notorious antipathy for preplanning, especially within the Dark Tower series itself, and it seems more likely that he came up with the Turtle without some grander plan, only later deciding to make it a part of the Dark Tower universe. At any rate, getting into the cosmogony of It as part of the larger whole that is the Dark Tower could probably be a series on its own, and would also require me to sit down and re-read all seven of those novels, so henceforth I’ll be treating It as a self-contained novel, not part of King’s larger universe (macroverse, if you will).

There’s a sort of twisted Gnosticism at work in King’s conception of It and the Turtle. Throughout the book there’s a disgust and horror that pervades the physical, along with all the damage it can wreak and that can be wrought upon it. The primal fear of a monster eating its victims, which Pennywise plays heavily upon, is a deeply physical one, though there’s also the metaphysical horror of one’s essence being absorbed by another entity. The chief horror of the Derry sewers, besides their darkness, is the stifling mess of shit and waste that runs through them; the most horrific part of Beverly’s encounter with Pennywise in the form of an old woman is the fact that she unknowingly (at first) drinks liquid shit in the form of tea served to her by It. Patrick Hockstetter, a solipsist who believes himself to be the only real person in existence, has only one fear—that of leeches draining his blood, which of course happens to him in short order. And so on and so forth. The physical can be redeemed, as happens in the Losers’ final bonding in the sewers, but on the whole is depicted as vile and horrific throughout the novel.

If this flesh is a prison, Pennywise is the demiurge who rules over it. Its flesh is not like that of the children who It terrorizes; It is fluid, capable of becoming anything it wishes rather than remaining trapped in one form. And even this malleable physical container is not Its final form. The Deadlights, the metaphysical terror hovering in the outer macroverse, are the closest it has to a true self. All this, of course, smacks of a Gnostic conception of the universe—the true reality lies beyond the physical, our own universe only an illusion preventing us from seeing what truly is.

Things are complicated, however, by the fact that It is not the only demiurge; It exploits the physical, but It didn’t trap us there to begin with. That blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Turtle, who vomited up our reality in the midst of a bout of nausea. This event is, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, widely viewed as a bad move; the Turtle himself pleads with Bill for forgiveness, telling him

I made the universe, but please don’t blame me for it; I had a belly-ache.

Thus there are two demiurges existent in It‘s cosmogony, one that is actively malevolent toward the physical creation and one who is responsible for the creation itself. The Turtle is not a binary opposite of Pennywise, however; it is not quite indifferent, but if it’s benevolent it’s a weak sort of benevolence, one that can stand by and throw away a platitude or two but can’t offer much in the way of actual assistance.

did you enjoy meeting my friend the Turtle? I thought that stupid old fuck died years ago, and for all the good he could do you, he might as well have, did you think he could help you?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInexplicably, the Turtle vanishes in the midst of the novel’s second climax—It crows to the remaining adult Losers that he died choking on a galaxy. One gets the sense that King realized he couldn’t have any sort of useful deity present to upset his horrific universe, but it feels sloppy; just as soon as the Turtle abruptly enters, he’s gone again.

And indeed, the horrific nature of the novel is lost regardless due to a passing remark the narrator makes shortly after the final demise of It, one that has radical implications for his novel’s cosmogony:

And clearly, [Bill] heard the Voice of the Other; the Turtle might be dead, but whatever invested it was not.

Son, you did real good.

If we were to bring in the heap of canon welding that is the Dark Tower continuity, this Other could be called Gan, that series’ vague equivalent to God. Considered alone, it comes to about the same thing; some mysterious uber-deity that lies beyond even the macroverse. It’s apparently the driving force at work behind the strange coincidences that bring the Losers together, as well as the force that ensures they (mostly) remain childless and prosperous before their final showdown with Pennywise. It is, it could be said, the God to the twin demiurges of the Turtle and Pennywise, trying to undo the physical and metaphysical damage wrought by them.

Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as neat as all that. To begin with, there’s the question of why this Other invests the Turtle with power if it is, in fact, the Turtle’s fault that the universe exists in the first place. There’s also, as ever, the problem of a benevolent deity existing in the world of a horror novel and yet failing to directly save its children. In the context of a Gnostic universe this is more acceptable, as the God of a Gnostic cosmogony is remote and doesn’t directly intervene; however, this is also muddled, as the Other doesn’t act through savior figures in It but apparently wields a direct influence on the Losers, never enough to actually substantially alter events but just enough to shift probability.

There’s also the question of knowledge as the source of salvation. Gnosticism is obviously deeply concerned with this issue, and believes that divine knowledge of the reality that lies beyond our fleshly, material prison is the only way to achieve salvation. In It, however, the reward the Other grants the Losers for performing their duty is to erase their knowledge that such things ever happened. They forget their friends, their loved ones, their childhoods; more importantly, in a theological sense, they forget the metaphysical realities that have been revealed to them in the course of their quest to defeat Pennywise. If the Other is indeed benevolent, blinding the Losers to reality can’t mean their damnation. It also results, however, in a total inability to directly map King’s cosmogony onto a Gnostic one. What we’re left with is a rather muddled conception of the universe.

I’m probably giving this issue more thought than it deserves in the context of the novel. If there’s one thing that It isn’t concerned with thematically, it’s a classically Gnostic view of salvation. There’s also the out-of-universe reality that King was mired deepest in his cocaine addiction and alcoholism at this point, and it’s probably overly charitable to assume that he was thinking deeply about a workable theological framework for his novel (though then again, Philip K. Dick’s addictions never stood in his way. . .). However, the enormity of the cosmic fantasy the novel’s final quarter indulges in means it can’t simply be brushed over, especially if one does indeed try to tie it to the larger cosmogony of the Dark Tower universe. It would be fascinating for King to write a metaphysical treatise of sorts on the nature of his fictional universe; perhaps he has answers that he simply hasn’t told us, or, more likely, perhaps he really was simply making it up as he went along.

The implications of all this theological rigmarole for It‘s genre have been touched on at length in the introduction to this series. The presence of the Turtle and the Other muddy the conceptual waters enough that I don’t think It can be labeled a horror novel in its entirety, but a fantasy with strong horrific overtones. The categorical purist in me is frustrated by this, especially because it completely overturns what is otherwise a rather perfect encapsulation of what horror means in a philosophical sense, courtesy of Stan Uris:

There were things that were not supposed to be. They offended any sane person’s sense of order, they offended the central idea that God had given the earth a final tilt on its axis so that twilight would only last about twelve minutes at the equator and linger for an hour or more up where the Eskimos built their ice-cube houses, that He had done that and He then had said, in effect: “Okay, you can figure out the tilt, you can figure out any damn thing you choose. Because even light has weight, and when the note of a trainwhistle suddenly drops it’s the Doppler effect and when an airplane breaks the sound barrier that bang isn’t the applause of angels or the flatulence of demons but only air collapsing back into place. I gave you the tilt and then I sat back about halfway up the auditorium to watch the show. I got nothing else to say, except that two and two makes four, the lights in the sky are stars, if there’s blood grownups can see it as well as kids, and dead kids stay dead.” You can live with fear, I think, Stan would have said if he could. Maybe not forever, but for a long, long time. It’s  offense you maybe can’t live with, because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after awhile you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses that sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could.  Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.

The power of this passage is blunted by the fact that Its existence is not, in fact, a hole in the order of the universe after all, but part of a fantastic framework. It’s still chilling, but how much more chilling it would be if Stan’s universe were indeed an otherwise completely rational one.

What matters more than abstract questions of genre are the implications for Pennywise’s character. Unfortunately, Pennywise completely collapses once Its backstory is explained in detail. The appeal of the monster lurking underneath the bridge or inside the closet is that it is inexplicable; its motives, its origins, its nature, are all unknowns, making it impossible to fight. Learning exactly what It is, and worse, seeing inside Its head and reading its thoughts, undermines nearly all of the horror built by Its mystique; It is reduced from a seemingly omniscient, dastardly cunning monster to a whinging, cringing tyrant bloated by its own pompous self-importance (using the phrase I demand, no, I command it! is cringe-inducing from just about anyone; from a malevolent clown it’s even worse).

One could make the case that this is precisely the point—knowledge is all that’s required to drive away monsters in the closet, and while growing up renders us more susceptible to horror at things that shouldn’t exist, it also renders us more able to explain them away. And so, it would seem, knowledge is indeed a sort of salvation within King’s cosmogony.

Except for when it isn’t.

(to be continued)

Now she won’t be able to tell us apart: “Goodnight Mommy” review

goodnight-mommy ✦  of five

What a mess.

The trailer for Goodnight Mommy had me fairly excited. Here is a situation that, while not the most original horror setup in the book, could very easily deliver a genuinely unnerving experience, a mix of the family tensions of The Babadook or The Shining, the child-driven horror of Let the Right One In, and the in-broad-daylight isolation of The Witch. It’s calculated to hit those primal fears any child has experienced: being all alone and chased by a monster without a parent to help, or worse yet being chased by a parent who has become monstrous. And for the first act, the movie looks like it’s going to hit all those notes. And then, things begin to degenerate at a fairly incredible rate.

Spoilers ahead.

In terms of initial setup, the trailer is fairly accurate. Two boys, living in an isolated house in the middle of Austrian farmland, are greeted by a woman whose face is covered in bandages. She’s apparently their mother, returned from a cosmetic surgery of unknown purpose. But her behavior is different—where their mother was warm and loving, this woman is cold and harsh, and often mentally and physically abusive. As time goes by, the paranoia of isolation sets in more and more, and the boys are increasingly convinced that whoever this masked creature is, it’s not their mother.

The movie is completely unsubtle in its hints as to the mother-creature’s nature right off the bat. There’s a crucifix affixed to the boys’ wall that’s conveniently framed in numerous shots, and in a moment about halfway through the film, when the boys flee to town in an attempt to find help, they visit the local priest, the Catholic imagery growing even more obvious. The clumsy nature of this setup has two possible outcomes: either the movie thinks it is being clever in its foreshadowing rather than blindingly straightforward, or it doth protest too much. It turns out to be the latter—the horror at the heart of Goodnight Mommy is gradually turned on its head, the viewer’s fear for the twins Lukas and Elias slowly morphing into a fear of them and empathy for their antagonist/victim. The first of the movie’s two twists to be revealed—Mommy is indeed who she says she is, the torture the boys have inflicted on her in an attempt to get their real mother back all for nothing—while it takes the wind out of the horror sails, is built to with a fairly effective amount of viewer dread. One scene in particular, in which the twins strap the mother down to her bed and torment her in increasingly shocking ways, is masterfully played, our fear that the mother will reach out and seize the boys bit by bit supplanted by a stunned sort of revulsion at what they’re doing to her.

Unfortunately, the movie can’t support this well-drawn scene, nor can it support the entire twist that it’s built around. The reason for this could have been completely avoided, and it’s almost mind-boggling to me that writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala left it in the film. But they did—it even shows up in the trailer. And because of these thirty seconds or so of footage, Goodnight Mommy completely collapses.

It’s near nightfall. The mother, having recently thrown a tantrum in front of her children, wanders into the woods outside the house, shedding her clothes and walking naked through the trees. Odd, but not inexplicable—until her head begins to vibrate, whipping itself back and forth at a CGI-assisted speed clearly impossible for a mundane human being to achieve. This, coupled with the crucifix imagery, would seem to suggest that, if not a demon, something supernatural must be at work here.

Except…there isn’t. And the movie doesn’t even attempt to offer an explanation as to what the hell the forest scene is supposed to mean as a result.

One of the things that pleases (and frightens) me the most about The Witch, which has a similar and far more disturbing scene of a naked woman wandering alone through the woods, is that it doesn’t even think of pulling the all-too-easy trick so many horror movies do of trying to have their cake and eat it too in regards to the supernatural. The early sequence of the titular witch carrying baby Samuel back to her den, startling in its flouting of the generally accepted tenet that showing one’s monster should be reserved for the third act, firmly shuts down the internet-popular mode of interpretation that relegates every horror movie to the protagonist’s delusions whether that approach is warranted by the film or not. By contrast, The Babadook is an excellent example of taking that tired critical approach and making it work thematically. The monster can be either real or the product of the grief-driven psychosis of the film’s characters; the film’s central metaphor remains the same regardless of which approach is taken, and neither reading diminishes the horror at its core.

Goodnight Mommy tries to make use of both these approaches, which results in a completely incoherent piece of work. Even if it had committed to The Witch‘s brand of horror and rendered the mother an actual supernatural entity, the scene in the woods doesn’t particularly add anything to the film; indeed, it rather scuppers the dread of not knowing, of questioning what exactly this thing that wears a human shape is before it finally reveals itself—the boys’ mother somehow changed? a human impostor? something altogether more unnatural? As it is, a scene that in that scenario would have been tension-draining is utterly crippling. The film wishes us to believe that the boys’ mother always was just that, no alterations whatsoever. However, in having us do so it has to hope we’ve forgotten entirely about her supernatural jaunt. If the directors had rendered it as a dream sequence, something that the boys in their paranoia experience as a nightmare, it could have worked. No such trappings are wrapped around it, however. The movie is broken, and no attempt is made to fix it.

The supremely frustrating thing about all this is that the sixty seconds of screentime that the movie-breaking scene consists of could have been cut entirely without affecting anything. No information of any importance is conveyed, and the film would arguably be scarier without it, the ambiguity of the mother walking off into the dark woods alone far more unsettling than our seeing what she does there. Plenty of Christian imagery is littered throughout the next forty minutes, meaning the demonic red herring is viable without firsthand “proof.” And if the scene was shot for a misleading trailer, which is entirely possible—well, that’s exactly the sort of thing one leaves on the cutting room floor, isn’t it?

And so, the movie collapses in on itself. And while this complete lack of sense-making is its biggest flaw, it’s far from the only one. The third act increasingly relies on silliness in order to move the plot along. A pair of bumbling Red Cross workers take it upon themselves to enter into the family’s seemingly abandoned house and venture upstairs to look for inhabitants simply because the door was unlocked, resulting in a three-minute scene that accomplishes nothing and whose nonsense takes the viewer out of the film. More egregious is the film’s second twist—one of the twins has actually died, and the other in his madness has been hallucinating his presence. A comparison to Fight Club isn’t flattering—that film’s twist is integral to the plot, and the viewer is given a solid twenty minutes to acclimate to the Durden/narrator connection as part of the story they’re being told. Goodnight Mommy, on the other hand, shoves the twist in at almost the last possible moment, its rushed reveal a testament to the fact that the movie really doesn’t need it there. The viewer’s reaction at this point is not one of wonder or appreciation but of tired contempt.

Paradoxically, this flaw of silliness is balanced by a flaw of grimness. The film’s third act largely descends into torture porn, as the boys perform a series of indecencies on the intruder-mother to try to break her spirit. There are some shocking bits and pieces here—one moment in particular, in which the boys crazy-glue the mother’s lips shut and proceed to slice them open again, had me looking through my fingers—but beyond that shock their intent is unclear. Seeing such acts committed by little boys inspires visceral discomfort, to be sure, but to what purpose? The film begins to feel like nothing more than exploitation, and as the credits finally roll the viewer’s primary emotion is deep disappointment mingled with frustration and disgust.

Oddly enough, The Descent, which as of this writing I’ve just watched for the third time (for my family it was the first, and their reactions will certainly feature into my planned analysis of the film), contains far more violence per minute of screentime than Goodnight Mommy, violence far more extravagant in terms of blood spilled and lives ended. And yet it doesn’t feel nearly as exploitative. Perhaps it’s because that film is so perfectly constructed, whereas the flaws in this one are so egregious they encourage the viewer to poke and prod for more. Perhaps it’s because that movie has a lot to say (in a comparatively subtle way) about grief and the titular descent into despair that follows, where this one could say a lot about the mutual fears of parent-child relationships but chooses instead to descend into melodrama and ridiculousness. Either way, a comparison between the two proves that an over-the-top level of gore is not inherently in bad taste; it’s all in how you use it, and Goodnight Mommy doesn’t seem to be interested in using it as much more than a way to keep the audience involved with a shoddily constructed descent into not madness but absurdity.

There are glimmers of greatness in Goodnight Mommy, which makes it worse than if it were simply a consistent display of hackdom. It’s tastefully shot, and its three-person cast of Susanne Wuest and Elias and Lukas Schwarz does an admirable job, the boys in particular easily joining the ranks of excellently-rendered creepy children in the annals of horror film history. And individual moments—Elias’ nightmare of slicing his mother open only for cockroaches to pour out, the aforementioned transferring of sympathies from children to adult—are incredibly effective. It’s all the more a shame, then, that the film’s writer/directors couldn’t elevate the rest of its length to meet these moments in quality. Goodnight Mommy has gotten a fair amount of critical praise, with some going so far as to place it among fellow candidates The Babadook, It Follows and The Witch as one of the best horror films of recent memory. I’ve a feeling that, while those latter three will endure, this one’s reputation will fade away ere long. Not only is it not really horror, inexplicable moment of supernatural antics notwithstanding, it simply isn’t built to last in terms of meaning, story, or sense-making.