A little over a month ago, we shared with you Goodnight Mommy’s trailer with the headline “WHAT. THE F*CK. IS THIS.” Now I know the answer to that question born from trauma and confusion. And it’s way more disturbing than even that terrifying teaser lets on.
Written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, this Austrian horror-thriller is set in the relative seclusion of a modern home on the rural fringe of a small town. There twin brothers Elias and Lukas (played with eerie authenticity by real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz) frolic through the woods, playing tag through cornstalks, around narrow trees, in a dark lake, and over towering rocks. This is a setting lush with hiding places and inspiration for a child’s imagination to take root. Its introduction ushers you in to that familiar feeling of wonder and fear that lurked in childhood. So begins a kind of modern fairy tale, where the two boys return from a day of play to a hag of a woman they fear may not be their mother, but an evil impostor.
“Mother” (the stellar Susanne Wuest) has come home with bandages that hide her face and a chilly demeanor that scares her sons. Lukas, gives her the silent treatment, becoming increasingly convinced she’s some sort of devilish doppelganger with motives unknown but surely sinister. Elias is the mediator, desperately willing all to be well and for their fractured family to reunite. But there’s something ghastly in this house that threatens to destroy all the boys hold dear.
Goodnight Mommy is a masterful horror movie that puts you in the perspective of its young heroes from the first frame. We race through the woods with them. We’re welcomed into their dreams that turn into nightmares as their mother’s cruelty increases. We practically choke on the mystery that suffocates them. The sound design is sharp, loud and violent, making simple sounds of scratching, footsteps and flowing faucets cause for goosebumps. It’s a slow burn build that lures you in, setting you up for a second act that is one of the most disturbing cinema has ever seen.
Now, I consider myself to have a solid stomach for horror’s gore and violence. But Goodnight Mommy reduced me—along with a room full of supposedly jaded New York critics—into a wave of gasps and spasms of discomfort and disgust. We’re talking next-level, curl into a fetal position and hold your breath fucked up, ladies and gentleman. And the cast is pitch perfect in maneuvering through the film’s gut-churning turns. Yet it’s all to a purpose, throwing the audience so off balance that we are putty in the hands of Fiala and Franz and their beyond fucked up final act that will spur countless nightmares and resounding squeals of exaltation from horror fans.
But the less I give away, the better.
I’ve been rolling this movie and its deranged fairy tale around in my head for over a week now. Taking my time with this review has been a luxury, allowing me dwell a little longer in its hellish world of fear, secrets and shadows. I marvel that Fiala and Franz wound the tension so tight, and stick its landing so neatly as this is their first narrative feature. With its distinctly scary environment and terror-laced tale of mother-son relationship turned toxic, Goodnight Mommy reminded of another first-time filmmaker’s fantastically frightening debut, The Babadook, a movie I adore. And like that Australian stunner, this Austrian thriller is sure to launch its directors, and demand horror helmers step up their game.
In short, seek out Goodnight Mommy if you dare. Hang in there through its most savage sequence, and you’ll come out the other side with the kind of electrifying cinema experience you’ll brag about for years.
Check back Monday for a more in-depth discussion of Goodnight Mommy and its defining final act.
Kristy Puchko is pretty damn certain Goodnight Mommy will make her top 10 for 2015.