Imaginations run wild when you're a child—it's what make the ghouls and goblins and those monsters underneath your bed come to life and keep you up at night. But what if the scariest monster is... Mom? That's the terrifying premise set up in this Austrian art-house horror, directed by aunt-nephew duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Because what's scarier than realizing that you can no longer trust the person you love, that that person might not be who they say they are, and perhaps even something evil? That person, above all, being your own mother, the person who's supposed to comfort you and take care of you?
"A mother should look out for her sons," reads the tagline for Goodnight Mommy, but it instead finds two nine-year-old twin boys, Lukas and Elias (played by real twins of the same names), questioning this very idea, when their mother returns home after a mysterious surgery with her head wrapped up in bandages. Something about her is off—not only does she look different (eerie and mummy-like), but she's cold. And her coldness sometimes even borders on the abusive—like refusing to feed one of the twins, as some kind of unexplained punishment, or shaking the other a little too hard when he's not being obedient—which makes the pre-climactic horror scenes almost equally terrifying. Like last year's acclaimed indie horror The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy also raises the unthinkable: What if a mother suddenly has sinister desires towards her offspring?
Susanne Wuest, who plays the titular mommy, is a perfect choice for casting: Her swan-like neck and skeletal body structure really embody the otherworldly. She's got the physicality of an ice queen that makes even her warmest moments (at one point she smiles at her sons and pleads, "Can we be friends again?") something to be distrustful of. Lukas and Elias, naturally, take her truce with caution. Set in an equally cold setting—a large house with minimal, modern furniture and large, ghostly photographs hanging on the walls—it's hard to imagine there was ever any friendliness to this matriarch, though the boys' increasing suspicion suggests that there was indeed a time, before this mysterious face and personality-altering accident, when she was a loving human being with maternal instincts. The film's emptiness is used especially masterfully. The big, echoing house provides a lot of room for unsolved mysteries, with nooks and crannies that reveal more answers (or even more questions, depending on how you look at it) throughout the film.
It seems there are holes in the mother's memory, as well—and with more things not adding up, the boys become more and more convinced that the woman standing in front of them is not really their mother.
There's also an apparent lack of a patriarchal figure, which also goes largely unexplained for most of the movie. This lack of the other parent also means something else for the added effect of horror: These boys don't have anyone else to run to. It seems there really isn't anyone around them—no friendly neighbor, teacher, or friends; behind their home, it's all empty woods, and scenes of the boys hanging out near their house show them in isolated lakes or, as shocking as it is to believe, caves filled with real human skeletons (a not so uncommon sight in Austria, according to the directors).
Then there's also the music—a tried and true horror movie device that's been used to amplify the scares. In Goodnight Mommy, on the other hand, the music is hardly there, using instead the kind of silence that makes you hold your breath, as if you were Lukas and Elias, tip-toeing around the house behind mother's back. At one point—during its shocking finale—the combination of the visuals and the harrowing, score-less sound design induce a The Tribe-like queasiness.
Now, right here might be a good place to stop reading if you haven't seen the film yet. I promise there's not going to be any spoilers—the film is so much more effective if you go into it uninitiated. Compared to its final act, the first two-thirds of this film is mostly atmospheric horror. It's a looming creepiness that swings from all too silent minimalism to creepy crawly cockroach scenes. Then, unexpectedly, it takes a turn for a truly grotesque and horrifying style that would make Michael Haneke proud. I'll spare the details, but the film ventures into torture porn territory with little to no warning. The tonal shift is shocking, though not as shocking as what you actually feast your eyes on. Preference of the first or second half of the movie depends on what kind of a horror fan you are, though neither is less effective than the other. In fact, it's the second part that keeps the candle of the terror burning—and in the back of your mind for days afterwards—even when all those mysterious silences brought up in the first act have been filled with answers. It's also what makes this film worth watching even if you, perhaps an astute horror fan, can figure out what's going on before they spell it out for you. If you're squirmish, though, it may be best to stay away—but we dare you not to.