‘Goodnight Mommy’ a tense, deeply creepy horror about the perils of puberty

By Nate Taskin

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If a horror movie’s primary purpose is to make the viewer feel like they need a bath right after they watch it, then consider this “Goodnight Mommy” review a glowing recommendation.

Wrought with tension reminiscent of noted Austrian director Michael Haneke’s films like “Cache” and “The White Ribbon” – along with some of “The Omen” thrown in for good measure –“Goodnight Mommy” is quiet and methodical, sitting on a fuse that, once lit, aims to incinerate everything in its path.

The film is set in Austria, but don’t expect the Trapp family to greet you at the front door. After a mysterious, unexplained accident drives a wedge in their family, 11 year-old twin brothers Elias and Lukas (played by real life brothers named Elias and Lukas) discover that their mother, never bestowed with a name herself, has returned home with eerie bandages wrapped around her face, evoking the impression of a mummified Pinhead straight out of the 1987 British horror “Hellraiser.”

Mommy’s personality has changed, too. She’s cold, distant and authoritative to the point of suffocation. When Elias asks why Lukas doesn’t get a glass of juice, her answer is a grim, curt “You know why.” This isn’t the loving mother that they remember. They wonder if they have an imposter on their hands. The audience wonders, too, and part of the pleasure of this film comes from discovering where it falls on the scale of magic versus mundane.

“Goodnight Mommy” is a difficult film to discuss because of its many perception-adjusting reveals. Like an optical illusion, the film appears at first glance to be about one thing, only to change form when given a second look. Some may boast that they predicted the twist early, maybe even at the film’s halfway point.

To me, though, to determine this movie’s value based around its twists only cheapens it. The film is, first and foremost, an exploration of a child’s haunted psyche, and knowledge of its reveals allow us to further understand the characters’ states of mind, as well as act as an elaboration on the overall themes of the film.

Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala do not even make much of an attempt to hide the twist, as they drop numerous clues early on. Their aim is not to trick us. Rather, they want to draw us further into their universe. And with some cinematography that makes a lake blacker than oil, cornfields taller mountains, and hissing cockroaches look like adorable bunny rabbits, it’s a fascinating world to experience.

Prior knowledge of the twist midway through the movie, if anything, makes it more emotionally compelling. It grants the viewer the privilege of really sinking our teeth into the meat of story, and enables them to fully digest the message that the film wants to convey. If knowledge of a story’s twist “ruins” a movie for you, then consider that you may have only engaged with the story on an artificial, surface level.

When we discuss what makes us afraid in a horror film, we always, either consciously or unconsciously, refer to a more primal fear bubbling deep within ourselves. With zombies, it’s our fear of our own misanthropy.

With werewolves, it’s our fear of our violent impulses. With vampires, it’s our fear of our sexual impulses. With ghosts, it’s our fear that death is just as miserable and banal as everyday life.  With giant kaiju monsters, it’s our fear of civilization’s eradication.

In that regard, “Goodnight Mommy” acts as an excellent companion piece to “It Follows.” Yes, “It Follows” was, on the surface, a movie about a killer STD. Underneath that, though, the film acts as an exploration of the anxiety that teenagers face when confronted with approaching adulthood and newfound responsibility. They can try to run from it, yet sooner or later, it catches them, envelopes them, and it alters them forever.

“Goodnight Mommy,” meanwhile, deals with the horrifying realization that all children go through: that the world does not answer to their own terms, and moves independently from them. Our parents are not just our parents. They exist separately from our wills and have names, wants, ambitions, and interests.

Both a coming-of-age and cautionary tale, “Goodnight Mommy” acknowledges that as we get older, we must deal with uncomfortable adjustments and overwhelming grief. Maturation beckons, and if we choose to ignore the call, if we shove all our fear and guilt in the back of our minds, it will return with a vengeance and drag us into hellfire.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]