Title: “Goodnight Mommy”
Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Release date: Jan. 8, 2015
Rating: 4 out of 5
Let’s get this out of the way: “Goodnight Mommy,” an Austrian horror movie, is predictable. It’s not narratively clever. Despite this, it’s scary as hell. That feat alone deserves recognition. Directors Franz and Fiala do away with jump scares in favor of tension-building. At any point, “Goodnight Mommy” could have devolved into standard extreme horror fare. Thankfully, it rarely does so.
The premise preys upon a truly primal fear: the fear that one’s caretaker isn’t really their caretaker. After an unspecified accident, Mother (Susanne Wuest, “The Secret Society of Fine Arts”) returns to her isolated country home, her head wrapped in bandages. As her behavior grows stranger, twins Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz) begin to suspect their mother hasn’t come home at all.
“Goodnight Mommy” earns its stripes as extreme horror. Like the French horror “Martyrs,” the movie succeeds not because of its cruelty, but because of the emotion underneath it. Lukas and Elias are isolated from their mother. Both want comfort, but Mother offers none. As their shared history is revealed, the alienation and mystery only deepen.
Sadly, the movie reveals itself easily. For experienced horror fans, the twist is obvious in the first scenes. But the tension is so perfectly crafted, the dread so overwhelming, that knowing it won’t matter. Just as Mother acts like a monster, so too do Lukas and Elias. Their familial dynamic is the heart of the horror.
In their first roles, Lukas and Elias Schwarz dazzle. They are children, above all, confused and scared, though they play all the same. Beyond the violence and cruelty, the hardest thing to stomach is their growing apart. Viewers know that their bond is strong, and to see it threatened is harrowing. Beside them, Susanne Wuest is a force to be reckoned with. Like Essie Davis in “The Babadook,” Wuest’s Mother is equal parts cruel and vulnerable. Her performance is all the more impressive for the empathy it evokes.
Horror movies are a director’s genre. Where comedies rely on chemistry and dialogue, horror movies rely on editing and atmosphere. Directors Franz and Fiala show that horror is their genre. While it is predictable, “Goodnight Mommy” coasts by on its tense editing, dreadful atmosphere, and powerful performances by its three leads. Like the twins at its center, viewers may hope for comfort during their viewing, but “Goodnight Mommy,” thankfully, offers none.