A Nightmare on Elm Street, Austria, Best Foreign Language Film, Cinema, Elias Schwarz, Film, Foreign Film, Friday The 13th, Goodnight Mommy, Halloween, Horror, Horror Film, Horror Movie, Lukas Schwarz, Movie Review, Susanne Wuest, The Forest, The Oscars, The Other Side of the Door
“Goodnight Mommy” is an Austrian horror film which was initially released back in 2015. Having stumbled across the trailer I was more than excited to see what this movie had to offer, not least because it centres on a pair of creepy identical twins (spoiler – I’m a twin). Now that I’ve seen “Goodnight Mommy”, I can say with confidence that my excitement was well placed, because this film is as unsettling as any horror that I’ve seen.
“Goodnight Mommy” was Austria’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Oscars, which says a lot about its quality, and also the type of audience that it is attempting to appeal to. Although “Goodnight Mommy” is billed as a horror movie, it doesn’t rely on jump scares or cheap music to build tension, and in fact, it’s just as much a psychological thriller as it is a horror film. It explores real issues like guilt, grief, and denial, and it does so for the sake of telling its story, not to scare its audience.
The film revolves around twin brothers Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz), as they explore the world around them, making the most of their lakeside home. At the start of the film we see the boys playing in the woods, in what is an extremely unnerving scene, and we wonder why they have been left to explore by themselves. This question is then answered when they return home, as we see that their mother has a face like a mummy on Halloween.
Having gone through cosmetic surgery for an unspecified reason, Mommy’s (Susanne Wuest) face is covered in bandages, something which the brothers don’t particularly like. Her appearance obviously frightens them, which is understandable because it frightened me as well; this sense of fear is then heightened, as Mommy’s behaviour is erratic and at times aggressive. To the audience this behaviour is completely understandable; it could be a stressful reaction to her surgery, or it could even relate to the accident that made that surgery necessary in the first place. However, the boys aren’t so understanding, and end up feeling so disconnected from their mother that they question her identity.
To say any more than that would be to give the game away, and in a way I already have because there’s not a lot more to the story than what I’ve just explained. Nonetheless, I could’ve written the same plot summary had I left the cinema after five minutes of the movie, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that watching these twins go about their everyday lives is completely compelling; as is watching their mother try, and fail, to cope with them.
“Goodnight Mommy” is what most people would call a slow-burner, and in the interest of fairness I would have to agree. However, for me that’s a great thing, because unless a horror film has an utterly terrifying villain killing off innocents in every other scene, (“Friday the 13th”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” etc.), atmosphere has to be king. By focusing on the eeriness of silence, and the occasional childish laughter which breaks it, this film is able to build a feeling of dread without once resorting to the element of surprise.
As far as I’m concerned, this separates “Goodnight Mommy” from films of the same ilk which are at the cinema right now (“The Forest”, “The Other Side of the Door” etc.), because those types of films fundamentally misunderstand the types of phenomena that make people feel afraid. To think that making an audience jump is the same thing as making an audience scared is to misinterpret the very nature of a human being – I am an easily-startled person, and thus I jumped several times when I saw “The Forest” at the cinema, but that movie was in no way frightening.
A good horror movie makes you think about the things that go bump in the night when you’re safe in your bed – it invades your thoughts in the one place that you should feel safe. It creeps up the stairs, lurks in the corner of your bedroom, and watches you sleep, all the while remaining silent and invisible. Bravo then, because “Goodnight Mommy” certainly stays with you after you leave the theatre. It might not be the source of your nightmares when you finally get to sleep, because ultimately its story is very specific, but I like to think that it gave my dad at least one, as he wondered how things could’ve been had me and my brother been a little bit more unhinged.
“Goodnight Mommy” is set almost entirely in one idyllic location – a lakeside house surrounded by trees and cornfields. This isolation heightens the atmosphere significantly, as it feels as though the mother in this story has no escape from her ill-behaved sons. The fact that we rarely see anyone other than the twins and their mother means that we can connect to them, and also keeps external details about their situation sparse, which is important for a film such as this.
The three lead performances in this movie are fantastic. They work on two levels, as the actors portray themselves as creepy horror movie clichés for the first half of the film, but then become much more real and honest as it works towards its conclusion. This reveals the layers of their performances, as each seemingly strange action becomes understandable, and they are shown to be the damaged people that we ultimately know that they are.
“Goodnight Mommy” does have something of a twist towards the end, although I have to say that it was pretty easy to predict. I’m not going to say when I predicted it, but it’s fair to say that it was early on, and I know that certain people will see the signs long before I did. However, I don’t think that the writers were particularly bothered whether or not people figured out the reality behind the situation, because everyone watching the film knows that something has to be up for it to go wrong in the end. With that in mind, “Goodnight Mommy” works perfectly well even if you’ve realised the problem that the mother is facing, and there’s even a case to say that it works better. It explains the characters’ behaviour throughout the movie, and it’s the kind of thing that would make watching the movie for a second time worthwhile, as you could look for each point at which the writers signposted what was really happening.
I don’t have many issues with this movie at all, but I do feel that a couple of things could’ve been explained so that viewers left the cinema with the right questions in their heads. When I say that, what I mean is that when you leave a movie you should be asking questions that the writers wanted you to ask; questions about implications, rather than unnecessarily withheld information. The problem then, is that when I left the theatre having seen this film I asked questions like ‘who was looking after the children when their mother was in hospital?’, and ‘why isn’t the dad around when the mother is clearly struggling?’.
If there was anyone else around during the events of the movie then it would undoubtedly be ruined, and it’s not as if I want information to be shoved in my face, but there was ample opportunity to answer these questions in a creative way without harming the story that was told. This issue might seem a little facetious having read my plot summary, but trust me when I say that the father’s absence in the film is a pretty big deal, and something that didn’t make a whole lot of sense when I thought about it afterwards – it felt like a plot hole to service the narrative, which is always an annoying feature in an otherwise intelligent movie.
All things considered, “Goodnight Mommy” is a great movie, and a wonderful example of what can be achieved in the horror genre if you take your material seriously. The true horror of our lives doesn’t come in the form of ghosts, goblins, and ghouls; it comes through pain, suffering, and grief. If you get the chance to see this movie then I wholeheartedly recommend that you take it. Not everyone is warm to the idea of seeing a foreign film, but for fans of horror this one is more than accessible – there’s very little dialogue, so subtitles aren’t really an issue, and you will be so immersed in the experience that you’ll forget that you are reading them.