More than any other type of film, horror cinema is dominated by sub-genres. Just about every horror movie fits in some niche or another. Some of them are simply characterized by whatever monster they’re about (zombie movies, vampire movies, etc.), some are characterized by the specific way their protagonist is stalked (slasher movies, found footage movies, haunting movies), and some are more rooted to a specific movement in the history of the genre (torture porn, J-horror, B-movies). Dividing things into specific boxes is certainly a fun thing to do amongst film fans but there is a danger to doing that too. Namely, when a movie comes along that can’t be easily fit into one of these sub-genres it can be hard to know just what to do with it and if you even want to call the work a horror movie. Goodnight Mommy, the debut feature from Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is sort of an example of this. There no real doubt that this a film that’s rooted in horror and you can definitely see the influence of other horror films on it, but it isn’t tremendously easy to fit it into an existing sub-genre.
The film is set almost entirely on a somewhat secluded rural property where two twin boys named Lukas and Elias (played by a pair of twins who are actually named Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live with their mother (Susanne Wuest). The mother, whose name is never revealed, is a local news broadcaster who’s separated from her husband and has recently gotten a nose job which has left almost her entire face covered with bandages. The twins are oddly disturbed by the mother’s appearance behavior, she seems different from before and the two start having vividly disturbing dreams about her and start to wonder if she may be an imposter.
Goodnight Mommy has been advertised as a horror movie, and by its end it probably does earn that designation but it goes a pretty long time without really feeling like one. For better or worse the movie is devoid of “jump scares” and is never in too much of a hurry to deliver “the goods.” Instead it spends some time introducing us to these twins and it very cannily starts the audience in a sort of position of unease by tossing them into the story at a rather awkward moment without giving them a whole lot of explanation. For a while it seems like these kids are living at this house all alone until the mother returns, seemingly after a lengthy absence, and the film takes a pretty long time to reveal why she’s in bandages. Beyond that, the kids seem pretty weird themselves. They have some pretty odd rituals, they collect bugs, they hang out in strange caverns and concern themselves with dead cats. So from the get go you’re not quite sure what’s going on, you can tell there’s some trickery at play and all this builds towards the last third or so of the movie which gets surprisingly disturbing and violent.
As you can probably guess I’ve been dancing around a twist reveal, one which makes this pretty hard to talk about, so I’m going to issue a big spoiler warning going forward and tackle it unrestrained. I went ahead and gave that spoiler warning but one of the film’s bigger weaknesses is that it really isn’t that hard to guess what the big twist is, especially given that the film sort of telegraphs that everything wasn’t going to be what it appeared. The fact that one of the twins only speaks to his mother by whispering into the other twins ear is a pretty big giveaway that there’s only really one kid and it doesn’t take long to realize that the mother really isn’t doing much of anything that’s all that malevolent and that most of the creepy stuff related to her seems to be happening in dream sequences.
In many ways the film is a test study in the effect that perspective has on a film. It is interesting how the film manages to illustrate the strange logic of a disturbed child but it’s also a double edged sword. Because the film is with the children/child the whole way through it makes it a lot harder to empathize with the mother when things get nasty towards the end and as a result the film ends up not being all that scary and while there are moments of suspense they’re also undercut by the fact that the movie is essentially told from the perspective of the killers rather than the victim. Instead the movie is just really really disturbing both in terms of its ideas and its violent content. There’s nothing too wrong with that, I definitely like to be disturbed, but I have to wonder how effective the movie would be if it had swapped perspectives and been something a bit closer to The Babadook but with a significantly less happy ending. As such I’m kind of lukewarm on the movie right now, but it’s been about a week since I saw it and some moment from it are definitely standing out in my memory and I’m beginning to think this may stick with me more than I thought.
*** out of Four