✦ ✦ 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.
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.