ATMOSPHERE is key in Goodnight Mommy, a twisty and unpredictable horror from Austria that may not reach levels of greatness but still packs enough intrigue that remains right to the end.
Two twin boys Elias and Lukas (both played by Elias and Lukas Schwartz) are seen playing in the cornfield outside their house when they arrive to find a woman that is assumed to be their mother, repetitively closing the blinds in her bedroom. The unnamed mother (Susanne Wuest) is shown to have bandages around her face, as the result of cosmetic surgery, likely to have be done following some sort of accident.
As the film progresses, the boys begin to click that something is not necessarily right with their mother, mainly due to a strict regime where the boys are required to only play outside and ensure total silence inside the house. As the somewhat unusual behaviour of their mother increases, the boys gradually become convinced that the woman that is living with them is not really their mother.
With their suspicions, the boys ultimately retreat to drastic actions to secure the truth of who the woman is, leading to events that threaten to have deadly consequences.
Save several small characters, the film largely comprises of the mother and the twin boys and is pretty much set inside the house, creating an almost claustrophobic setting, in a less chilling but still effective manner akin to Polanski’s Repulsion or The Tenant.
Of course, looking at films from Austria like this, one inevitably thinks of Haneke, and with an atmospheric setting like this, one could also see Funny Games as a possible influence. Now while the directorial duo of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala who also co-write this film might not have reached a benchmark with this, there is eye for potential, thanks to a direction that forms of static shots and often slightly uncomforting audio of what turn out to be blinds being pulled. The involvement of beetles in several scenes and a scene depicting one of the boys hiding against a wall in a darkened room as the suspicious mother checks the room also adds for bringing a visually creepy area on top of its psychological ambitions.
The question that the film asks is whether or not the woman is really the boys’ mother, which in turn is what keeps the film going. A level of intrigue is reached where we as viewers speculate whether the boys are right in their theory that the woman is an imposter. But that is only if she is such a thing and that opens theories that spell out theories as to where the real mother is.
On the other hand, if she really is their mother, though we know that children can often rebel in the face of strictness, why would she be acting the way she is? True that she is in the process of recovery but there is an element of intrigue going from the boys’ reactions as to why she is acting in such a frosty and often aggressive manner, especially when it is implied that this contrasts with previous behaviour.
A suspenseful aspect is vital in a sequence where the boys hide a cat in their room just as their mother arrives, only being prevented from seeing by locking their door. A demand to know what is being hidden leads to the mother searching the room, with the cat on the verge of appearing from under the bed, only for a lighter to be found instead, leading to a mother-son quarrel but for another reason than initially thought.
It is the unpredictability of scenes like this that help with the film working well as a mystery. The knack for this occurs several times when something happens and leads us to avenues we assume are taken for granted, only to come out with something that we don’t prepare for in the heat of the moment.
The third act, though somewhat disturbing, is of particular intrigue, where the phrase ‘never have kids’ effectively comes to mind when thinking back to it. When the boys decide to undergo a fiendish method of working out who their real mother is, the curiosity kicks in further as one is left wondering where this will lead, especially as it appears to counter the supposed innocence of children. This is more than corroborated in one moment which might make one think twice about letting a young child anywhere near a magnifying glass on a hot day.
It does not seem in whole need of a second viewing any time soon, but as a psychological horror, Goodnight Mommy works as an intriguing and relatively entertaining feature with an interesting premise at heart.