in Shocktober

Goodnight Mommy (2014)

I really had no idea that we’d end up reviewing two movies this Shocktober by the directing team of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, since when I picked to review Goodnight Mommy, I didn’t even know who they were. I also can’t even remember why I picked this movie, but it probably was because it was on the better-reviewed side of our options and it’s often fun to go into a movie knowing as little as possible about it. Well, unless it’s The Nightingale, which I’ve avoided seeing since it sounds like I knew a lot more about it than Sean did before watching it. Anyways, despite being an Austrian production that didn’t get a huge release in the States, Goodnight Mommy feels very akin to the types of arthouse horror movies put out by A24, as it starts out very slow and contemplative before it gradually gets more and more nuts, until you’re left wondering what the hell you just watched by its conclusion.

Nearly all of Goodnight Mommy takes place in this isolated, modern-looking cabin or in the wilderness surrounding it. The house is inhabited by an unnamed mother (played by Susanne Wuest) and her two twin boys, Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwartz), while the mom is recovering from a cosmetic surgery that leaves her face almost completely bandaged. She appears to be acting almost maniacally strict with the boys, forcing them to always leave the blinds closed, be as silent as possible at all times, and lashing out at them when they don’t deserve it. Finding it hard to believe that she would ever act this way, the boys start to become suspicious that this woman is not actually their mother.

This suspicion is further aroused when they’re shown a picture of a woman that her mother claims that she used to be friends with, who shares a lot of the same features as her. Shortly thereafter, the mother gets the bandages on her face removed, but Elias and Lukas are nonplussed by the fact that she seems to be in a better mood, and go running out of the house and make their way to a church, where they ask for help from the clergy. However, the priest there just drives the twins back to their house, since they don’t think anything appears to be wrong with the mom. Once the boys are back home, the mother tries to be nicer to them, but they keep interrogating her, trying to suss out whether she’s their real mom, which she insists she is. They then tie her to a bed and things just get progressively worse from there.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an intentional stillness to the first half of this movie, as we’re given very little information about the nature of the mother’s bandaged face and the relationship between her and her sons. We then see the twins scrounging around the house, trying to find some sort of playfulness in an otherwise housebound existence (not unlike the one I assume most kids went through in 2020). However, there are these flashes of the grotesque that include Elias and Lukas having a certain fascination with cockroaches and their ill-fated cat, which point the way toward where things go in the final third of the movie.

What also makes the film notable is the way it shifts exactly who the villain is in the movie. During the first half of the film, you can’t help but side with the twin boys, since they haven’t done anything wrong (other than be slightly creepy, because that’s just how twins in horror movies go), while the mom is consistently pretty terrifying. However, once the mom completes her recovery and seems to be willing to be a better to her kids, the fact that the boys continue to become more forceful and interrogative of the mother makes them a lot harder to sympathize with. Then by the end of the movie, they’ve become far more destructive and psychotic than the mom ever was, which gives the film a lack of a moral center which I maybe didn’t love, but ultimately was ok with.

This manifests itself in a particularly cringe-inducing scene toward the end where the boys have tied their mother to a bed and superglue their mother’s mouth shut so that she can’t scream for help. Then in order to start feeding her, they get a pair of scissors and try to use that to cut open the dried super glue. I’m wincing just typing about the scene, and while watching it, I did that thing of putting my hands over my eyes and then curiously opening my fingers to peak between them at what was happening onscreen. I’m not sure how much I love the movie for putting me through that experience, but I suppose it isn’t something I’ve done in a while. Also, you have to give the directors props for having the restraint to include barely any violence in the film prior to its last sequence, which makes it all the more effective.

Other than its cool, detached aesthetic, Goodnight Mommy also fits into the recent trend of arthouse horror because I’m not sure a mainstream audience would find its ending cathartic. While the movie plants a lot of uncertainties and questions over the course of its runtime, it never overtly answers all of them. That said, there is a satisfying twist thrown in at the end that I think makes sense, even though I’d have to watch the movie over again to make sure. Additionally, I think I had enough questions answered by the end, and the ones that still remain probably make the film even more unnerving.