To any hopeful parents who are planning on starting a family sooner than later, here’s my warning – don’t watch Goodnight Mommy. Not yet, at least.
There’s something so inherently unnerving about a horror movie that relies heavily on children, because kids are supposed to be full of innocence and wonder – the perfect guise for pure, seething evil. When you see a child, happy thoughts of doing no wrong immediately pop into your head. We wouldn’t dare imagine children doing the unspeakable, right? Children CAN’T be evil, because we’ve CONVINCED ourselves they can’t be.
So what if children CAN be evil? Or worse, what if they don’t actually know the moral implications of actions that are simply a result of their blurry, juvenile fantasies?
Goodnight Mommy is no Pet Sematary or Who Can Kill A Child?, where children are turned into bloodthirsty murderers who kill without remorse, but it does tiptoe a similar line. Filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz are able to intertwine a psychologically thrilling tale of familial terror with bewildered curiosity, as two children struggle to accept their mother’s new post-surgical appearance. At their age, with over-active minds, the brothers dreams up a wild scenario to connect the unforeseen dots in their lives, which turns this horrific suburban nightmare into an eerily human tale as each mysterious clue surfaces. Is the young duo’s conclusion far-fetched and overblown? Of course – but those chills going up your spine are real.
Lukas and Elias Schwarz play two brothers named Lukas and Elias (easy enough), who eagerly await the return of their game-show hostess mother (Susanne Wuest) from the hospital. When she returns home, the boys are shocked to see a bandaged figure (who looks somewhat like a female mummy) claiming to be their mother. But when she starts displaying unusually aggressive tendencies, Lukas and Elias are convinced that someone has stolen the identity of their dearest mommy, and they’ll stop at nothing to find out why.
Goodnight Mommy is not a movie to be taken COMPLETELY serious, but its greatest victory is generating fear through human traits. There’s no monster or horror villain lurking in the shadows. Lukas and Elias are pitted against whoever has assumed the role of their mother, but it’s simply three humans caught in a back-and-forth power struggle. Sure, there are questions surrounding how two boys could outsmart and overpower a grown adult during the film’s more intense encounters, but everything remains in a hauntingly grounded realm where imagination distorts under the consuming pressures of grief.
Fiala and Franz periodically delve into dream sequences in order to stray away from the ordinary, but the most disturbing moments of Goodnight Mommy come when all parties are awake, distraught, and able to feel intense pain. Kudos to the filmmakers for integrating a few misleading looks into dreamland though, because these distractions suspend our belief that certain atrocities are truly occurring in the character’s lives (and not in another dream). Cockroaches burst from Wuest’s stomach in a gleefully cringe-worthy vision, hinting that the worst may be over, but there’s no preparation for a blistering third act that’s ripe with torturous intensity. These dreams steadily build the hypnotizing horror Goodnight Mommy sets out to unleash, and there’s no holding back once Lukas and Elias take control.
Much of the film’s success can be attributed to its young stars, who are natural children given the dire circumstances. Everything they do is thought out with a Boy Scout mentality, and their deviousness can be summed up by cheekily admitting “boys will be boys.” The Schwarz brothers own Goodnight Mommy every step of the way, playing both victims and oppressors once the tides turn – and turn they do. Wuest’s unrelenting dominance towards her cinematic sons plays harshly as the boys stretch to find answers about their mother’s mood swings, and again, as the power shifts, Wuest becomes a heartbroken parent simply praying that her boys can see the truth (if she IS their mother). I’m trying to play it cool here, because there’s a major reveal I’m holding back, so I’ll curtail my praise by saying all actors run a gamut of emotions, and their physical/psychological trauma can be felt in each and every scene.
That third act, though. DAMN. What a finale it is. Goodnight Mommy‘s final blow is built on searing imagery that brands your mind like a glowing cattle prod, right after we’re left with gaping mouths by a gut-punch-climax of sinister proportions. It’s the kind of ending that leaves you beaten, battered, and reaching for a loved one, reduced to a pile of your own exhausted psyche. Whether it be a stern slap echoing through an empty room, or a shouted order, every outburst finds itself stinging the audience’s core with equal power, and that’s a testament to the brutally engrossing atmosphere that sucks us in like a bug zapper lulling insects into a false sense of security. But nothing matches Wuest’s final scene, and given the circumstances, nor should it.
There’s nothing sadder than a broken family, but when you witness one being torn apart in front of your face, almost literally, another level of sorrow piles on. Much of the film plays like a straight drama, but the air is so tense, there’s hardly a moment where we’re wishing for an untimely death or typical genre trope to liven up the mood. Then when we finally do hunger for a change of pace, the gore starts flying, and Goodnight Mommy splatters a red mist on perfectly white home decorations – the final corruption of all that is peaceful, pure and well-intended.
What else could you ask for from a horror movie that’s built on audaciously confident storytelling besides chilling brutality, realism, and a bedtime story from the depths of Hell? Rhetorical question: the answer is nothing.
Goodnight Mommy is a rare horror film that delivers exactly what you'd hope - go into this one blind, and you'll ensure maximum appreciation of each vastly different (and haunting) act.