A few weeks ago, the trailer for Goodnight Mommy became a bit of an online sensation, with various web outlets declaring it one of the scariest of all time. Anyone who goes to see the Austrian horror movie expecting one of the scariest movies of all time, though, is going to end up disappointed. That’s not because Goodnight Mommy isn’t effective or sometimes extremely disturbing, but because its tone is more about discomfort than fear. It’s certainly creepy, but it’s never really scary.
For the movie’s first half, the mother of the title (Susanne Wuest) is a disquieting presence, her face wrapped almost entirely in bandages like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, following an unspecified operation. Her twin sons Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) find her so upsetting that they begin to suspect she isn’t their mother at all. Her odd behavior seems to match her odd appearance, especially in the way she treats one brother differently from the other.
Writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala slowly build tension during that first 45 minutes or so, with haunting dream sequences (or are they?) and weird, unexplained personality quirks (why do the brothers keep a terrarium full of cockroaches?). The movie switches gears in the second half, as it becomes clear that the mother may not be the only one with something seriously wrong with her. Franz and Fiala expertly shift audience perceptions even as they raise the stakes, with some seriously uncomfortable, hard-to-watch sequences. Early on, Elias and Lukas aren’t too difficult to tell apart, but as the movie progresses, they start dressing in the exact same outfits and often behaving like a single entity. The Schwarzes give such symbiotic performances that it’s easy to imagine the characters being played by the same actor, like the aloof dual roles of Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers or Armie Hammer in The Social Network.
Franz and Fiala’s detached perspective on cruelty recalls the work of countryman Michael Haneke, and the focus on body horror and the alienation of the familiar evokes David Cronenberg, although Goodnight Mommy is not as sadistic as Haneke’s films can be nor as icky as the early Cronenberg movies it sometimes resembles. Its bummer of an ending is actually sort of sweet in a way, and the family dynamics are fascinating even if the climactic twist is somewhat obvious.
For all its flirtations with the supernatural (a house in the middle of the wilderness is a potent setting for a dark fable), Goodnight Mommy reveals itself to be about something more mundane, and in that way it’s even more disturbing. No evil force has invaded this family and turned parent against child, child against parent. It’s just the everyday tragedies of life, bearing down until they crack even those who seem the most innocent and kind. That turns out to be the scariest thing of all.