Good horror must strike a balance between entertainment and terror, and that tension tilts toward the latter in Goodnight Mommy. The Austrian writer/director team of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have an economical story, one where dread builds until all that’s left is discomfort. Their filmmaking is excellent, with crisp cinematography and a trio of unnerving performances, yet I found myself depressed by the disturbing, relentless story. Fiala and Franz design their long, painful climax in order to make wince, and go so far that their deft sleight of hand is moot. There’s a difference between looking away, terrified at what might happen next, and simply losing interest.
A pristine lake house, the similar setting of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, is where all of Goodnight Mommy takes place. Twin boys Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) are about ten years old, and their relationship is already creepy. They do everything together, mostly in silence, and their unnerving dependency suggests a deep, unhealthy bond. Their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home, and she’s not quite herself. She’s severe, short-tempered, and bandages cover her face. The family never quite discusses what happened, except for some inexplicable reason the mother prefers one twin over another. The boys begin a cruel game: they act out as if their mother is not their “real” mother, and they grow increasingly convinced that is true. Convinced that she is an impostor, the boys take drastic, disturbing measures to find out what happened to her.
Goodnight Mommy is an economical movie, and uses its limited setting and characters to its advantage. The life of the boys is pastoral, with opportunities to play in a gorgeous setting and even on a trampoline, yet they are cut off from civilization. Like the recent psychological thriller Queen of Earth, the setting shows how an overextended vacation can lead to an unhealthy mental space. Fiala and Franz juxtapose the scenes of play with nightmare sequences that exploit out primal fears: in one chilling sequence, the boys imagine slicing their mother’s stomach open, with heaps of cockroaches spilling out of her. The first and second act are meant to toy with our sympathies: Fiala and Franz give us just enough to wonder whether the boys actually have a point, and the Mother is unlikable enough that we want to believe them. This subtle manipulation, amplified by tense of editing and an ominous score, is what leads to a climax uncomfortably tense climax.
During the final third of Goodnight Mommy, Lukas and Elias tie up their Mother and torture her. Their methods are cruel, and the horror is that they probably do not realize just how much physical pain there are causing. Fiala and Franz keep the camera away from each creative new method, focusing mostly on the determined faces of the children, and then the camera gets into the nasty specifics of the torture. While Goodnight Mommy has art house trappings, its final minutes have the unpleasant staples of an exploitation film (think of a cross between Haneke and Eli Roth). The acting and make-up is convincing – I stopped responding to Goodnight Mommy as a film, and instead felt like a dazed onlooker – and something clicked to where I thought, “No, this is enough. Stop.” The payoff for the torture is a scene that adds depth to all the action that preceded it, except Fiala and Franz effectively disengaged me from the material. Perhaps your mileage will vary: everyone has their breaking points, their level of tolerance, and certain types of scenes they find more unpleasant than others. Goodnight Mommy found my line and crossed it, and while I can appreciate the artistry, I cannot say I’m grateful for the experience.