Goodnight Mommy

The oral stage
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2015
Director: 
Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Starring: 
Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz
The Setup: 
Tensions between mom and twin sons are rather high.
Discussion: 

Hey! Sorry for the delay in updating the site, but my laptop suddenly died and I was thrown back upon my desktop and ipad, at which point I found myself mortifyingly stymied. Here I am, one of those people who thinks he could survive for weeks in the wild on bark and grubs, if such matters came to pass, and I was completely thrown off by this small loss in technology! Humbled, my laptop back, we proceed...

So this is the new acclaimed horror movie, from Austria, of all places, and obviously I had to run off and see it. Now, the word on the street with this one is that the "twist" is quite, quite obvious, but that the technique and tension all make it worth seeing anyway. The other word on the street is that this is real "torture porn," which also has quite a bit of truth to it. I saw it last night and, honestly, I really don't know what to think about it. It was well made, it had great tension and some wonderful images, but... I'm just not completely sure.

We begin with a clip from... Something... That shows a woman surrounded by her children, singing a goodnight song in the manner of something from The Sound of Music... Which makes you reflect on what a bizarre tradition this is. Was this a common thing in Austria? Like, the mom trains the kids in a song, with simple choreography, to perform for dad before bedtime? Anyway, that clip is ironic, we have some credits, and the film begins. We meet these two 9-year-old twins, Elias and Lukas, walking in a bog, through the woods, then two strange scenes: they come across a drain/cave that has "vagina" written across the top (it doesn't, but may as well have), where Lukas goes in first. Then we see Elias on a float in a lake, while bubbles come up, Lukas apparently below. Then they see a car up at their house, and know that their mom has returned.

She has just had plastic surgery and is maybe not in the best mood. Her head is covered in bandages that essentially leave her looking like huge skull (a la Nightmare Before Christmas). You'll also soon notice some decor touches such as a painting of a woman who looks like mom's figure looking out a window, and lots of little doll figures, that also vaguely resemble her, scattered about the room. The boys also live in a room with a wall pattern that largely resembles ants. So, maybe their decorative choices could be more inspiring of mental health. Those darling boys also have a terrarium full of hissing cockroaches (like 35-40). And where's dad? Good question.

By the way, large stretches of the film for the first half are dead silent or extremely quiet, to the point that I was finding it difficult to eat my popcorn for fear of bothering people. Now, mom will only talk to Elias, not Lukas, and only makes one lunch, only pours one drink, and only lays out one set of clothes. When asked why she won't pour a glass for Lukas, she says "You know why." You'll notice that the boys' clothes are very similar, when not identical.

Now, mom is being a bit of a bitch, and tells the boys she needs absolute silence and the blinds closed. There is one very clever, very simple surprise that I'd love to tell you about, but it's so good I have to let you discover on your own. It involves mom's crunchy snack (not a euphemism). There are also several good visual touches, like mom's red eye in the mirror. The boys sneak in a stray cat (that they found in a grotto full of human bones) and we are aware that if mom found it, she'd be furious. She does get right up on top of Elias and smash his face violently when he messes with her. The boys now think that she is not their mother, and you might agree, once they play a tape of her bidding them goodnight, in a much, kinder, gentler voice than we've heard from her thus far.

SPOILERS > > >
Soon the boys bring a cockroach in and let it loose on her face, whereupon it crawls right into her mouth. Then they install a baby monitor under her bed, so they can listen to her. Then... Where has that cat got to? And you too might be wondering, since the cat has been AWOL for a while. Well, it's dead, and the kids say "I'm sure mom did it." They notice that mom has removed pics of their dad and Lukas from the walls and picture albums. Then they do what you or I might do, put all their cockroaches in jars, clean out the terrarium, fill it with formaldehyde (don't you have gallons of formaldehyde around the house?) plunk the dead cat in it, and put it on the living room coffee table. Which is hilarious. There is definitely a thread of black humor winding through here. Anyway, mom gets mad, and dumps all their cockroaches in with it. Soon after, she makes Elias promise to stop talking to Lukas. Then she gets her bandages off, and is a lot nicer. She asks the boys "Are we friends?"

Well, she's about to find out that they're really not. And here's where you have a last chance to avoid spoilers if you wish. The serious ones. Actually I'm not going to tell you specifically what happens, but basically the kids tie mom to the bed and torture her for the rest of the film. They go quite far, and we have numerous occasions to reflect that kids their age don't have a very developed sense of consequences. And that they are at a stage where most of the horrors they visit upon her focus on the mouth and eyes. There are several excellent macabre shocks, but it's hard to really admire them, as they are so nasty. What is the pleasure here? Which is part of what makes the movie so uncomfortable. Except, the pleasure of the filmmaking and how excellently it is playing our nerves and offering shocking images.

There were some gasps in my theater when the big secret was finally revealed, but really, it’s SO, SO obvious, I was a little surprised some people weren’t clued in. But you know—SOME people. There’s a bit more of a surprise, I mean, just where this went, and the ending is what you might imagine would go with that. Oh wait, I have to tell you the big secret, in order to discuss something else: There’s only one boy. There used to be a Lukas, but he died in the accident that disfigured Mom [and might have killed dad as well]. What’s weird is one shot in which the boys have a photo of the mother with another woman that looks exactly like her. Is SHE a twin as well? Could she be an impostor? If she is, the movie is more clever than I thought—having one obvious “answer” in order to hide a more intriguing one. And there's so much creepiness going on in all the images and bizarre circumstances [a grotto of human bones near the house?] that you might wonder if another whole, call it "subconscious," level is going on at the same time. But I’m afraid I’m not interested enough to go see it again and micro-analyze it. You tell me what you found.

Still, if it is just the one secret, it makes one wonder if the writer/director really thought no one would guess. If not, you can imagine how chagrined one would be to have every review say how very obvious it is. Maybe you’d have to go along and say you’d meant it all along? Like when directors make a serious movie and everybody takes it as a comedy?
< < < SPOILERS END

So ultimately, I have to recommend it. There’s just too many great things about it, even if I’m not 100% comfortable with what the ultimate goal seems to be. It’s not uplifting, that’s for sure, but it might provide interesting counterprogramming for a festival of family films. The shocks are just too clever and brilliantly orchestrated, set amongst visuals of such understated beauty that the whole thing is just very, very unsettling, and for long after you leave the movie. So how can you not recommend that? Even if it is one twisted tale.

Should you watch it: 

Yeah, if you like horror and well-made films.

Comments

Five nights later, and while I'm not hot under the collar anymore, I still loathe this movie fiercely enough to flap my yap here. I walked in not knowing there was a twist; five minutes in, it was screamingly obvious. Not only are you waiting for the other shoe to drop forever, but it's clear exactly where this movie is going. It's a vile destination and the journey there is stone dull; the story conveys the same points over and over, and is padded with slack naturalism left in because ... I dunno ... why not stretch out grating unpleasantness in anticipation of over-the-top ugliness? Ain't that what suspense is made of?

And that last 20 minutes or so ... not only does the film seem to have little intent besides transgression, it doesn't even have the skill to make the most of the conflict: One character shows absurdly little resourcefulness, presumably because the filmmakers were more jazzed to depict atrocity than to explore anything but the feeblest response to victimization. Holy God I sound like a Tipper Gore schoolmarm, but if an ineffective movie gets its only juice from torture and extreme violence, I can't be blasé.

You're a lot kinder than I am toward the movie's visuals. Bandaged mom is a great image, and the brief crusted-over swamp (?) was something I hadn't seen before, but the way the director captured the sterile interiors and familiar exteriors hit me as flat and tired. It's not just the content of "Goodnight Mommy" that enrages me; it's that technically I'm not seeing what you are. It's uninspired Euro arthouse doing torture porn, and undeserving of four Olivias, dammit!

Though I did dig the Red Cross folks. Maybe one Olivia for them.

Well, I can't totally disagree with you. You can see over the course pf the review I kind of talked myself into liking it. I can't really disagree with anything you're saying, although I think being prepared for the twist being obvious made me get past the rage that could occur if you didn't know. It is very ugly with its violence... but I liked that it's treating the boys' as real venal monsters [as opposed to sweet wonderful kids] and gets at their lack of developed empathy... Ultimately I just thought it deserved attention for being as rousing as it is, for good and bad. But--all your points are completely valid!

Yeah, I read your review afterward, and at first thought "Man, I have never been on such a different page as CdMScott!" But then I read the review and you clearly saw a lot of the stuff that gave me fits. It would have been fun to see this together, because I'm not as perceptive toward the movie's strengths as you are toward its weaknesses. The post-screening chitchat would have been *lively*!

I ... have to agree here.

10 minutes into the movie my wife asked "Are you not into this?" I told her I had a sinking suspicion this was going to be one of those arty slow burn horror movies that takes forever to get not very far and uses offbeat stylistic choices (like the silence / minimal soundtrack and long slow takes) to try to convince the audience there is something going on beneath the surface. Turns out I nailed it.

I must be pretty dense because I actually didn't see the twist coming, so I had the odd experience of being utterly surprised by a twist and also finding it unoriginal and trite at the same time.

Also, I am far from squeamish about horror movie violence but the torture at the end was so out of tone with the rest of the film that I found it just unpleasant and gross.

This is a movie I would never even consider watching again.

Totally get it. I had to laugh at your ine about being surprised and finding it trite at the same time. Yes, the torture is VERY unpleasant... oh dear, it inspires mixed feelings. I read an interview with the directors and found out they're first-timers without much background in film or overriding sense of what they were doing... will be interesting to see where they go after this.

I just rented this film and watched it and I am SO PISSED! It sounded so intriguing when I started reading your review that I didn't read past the 1st few paragraphs because I wanted to go in without knowing anything. Well, now I wish I'd read further, because not only am I disappointed (anyone who watched 1972's "The Other" or 2001's "The Others" would be) I'm angry at being so manipulated. Of course I saw the twist in the 1st ten minutes, and whether that situation is supernatural (a ghost) or natural (an insane child) can be open to interpretation, but I kept thinking that we would find out that there was something supernatural going on with the mother. Who doesn't wake up when a huge roach crawls in her mouth? (Or maybe she did and we just weren't shown?) And why did she walk off into the woods in the evening and strip off all her clothes? Was that a regular occurrence? And why show her head shaking around at super speed like she was transforming into a monster? I have a feeling that the filmmakers would say that was symbolic of her mental state, but it just felt like a tease to me. At the end I was screaming, "That's all? That's all??". The stylish visuals don't make up for the lack of pay-off and the gross torture. (PS-I wonder if it's normal in Austria to leave your young kid unsupervised in an unlocked house for long stretches of time. Where I live those Red Cross people would've called Child Protective Services.)

It can be an extremely frustrating movie. I read an interview with the writer/directors and... it was one of those where I wished I hadn't read it, because their ideas were pretty facile, and when you didn't understand something, it kind of biled down to "because it seemed cool." Thanks for mentioning THE OTHER, I was trying to remember the name of that one...