Directors: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Screenplay: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Cast: Susanne Wuest (as The Mother); Elias Schwarz (as Elias); Lukas Schwarz (as Lukas)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #70
(WARNING - CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS THROUGHOUT)
Sadly there's a lot of films in existence that build up a perfect rhythm for two-thirds of their lengthy only to collapse in the final thirty minutes due to various ill-advised creative decisions - call it "third act madness", a M. Night Shyamalan plot twist, anything that ruins a film that could've done gangbusters is the entire film had kept with its initial good form. Goodnight Mommy is one such film, which is disappointing knowing it's a rare horror film, with art house leanings, directed by two women, as I hope more women direct genre films rather than dramas, and that it's produced by Ulrich Seidl, a controversial but incredible director of films like Import/Export (2007) who was clearly attracted to Goodnight Mommy for it's cold tone and how it deconstructs the image of perfect middle class life in its first half like in many of his own work.
For two-thirds it's perfect. Twin brothers Elias and Lukas (real twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz) await their mother (Susanne Wuest) to return home from hospital, only for her face to be entirely bandaged and her personality to be emotionally distant and with strange changes in behaviour. The two boys become suspicious whether she's their mother or not; you first believe this to be the case but eventually, for me, it becomes a disturbing take on childhood imagination and of how a child views the world being inherently toxic. Even if it wasn't explicitly about Capgras syndrome, viewing another close to you as an imposter due to mental health issues, it could work still in the context of how an entire emotional sub current adults have, their mother having been in an accident and divorcing, brings out a part of her behaviour that they could not understand, causing them to view her as an evil stand-in to their mother rather than view her their mother going through literal physical transformation as well as emotional change.
The result is like a razor being scrapped on your neck in how much tension there is in every scene, the stereotypical mode of how scenes are shot in modern art house films, slow and glacial, having an immensely virtuous effect in adding to this dread here. The almost sterile nature of the home the film is set in, dramatically contrasted with the natural woodland outside, gives the greater sense of this being an undermining of the image of familial bliss and leads to the strange and bewildering combinations of the exterior and interior, nature against modern urban like, like the boys' obsession with keeping countless cockroaches as pets or a nightmare of their mother stripping off in the woodland at like a witch or a feral entity.
It manages to become stomach churning in terms of denying the notion of childhood innocence, turning the ideas of fairytales of children being right when against the evil step mother etc. entirely on its head, family relationship made into a web of uncertainty not helped by the mother's distance and behaviour caused by great emotional stress. When it's purposely playing with what the truth is, unsure whether she's a victim of the boys' bizarre behaviour or whether she's an actual imposter, that vague but troubling tone for the film is absolutely compelling. The combination of art house with streaks of horror also includes moments which reach into the stranger areas of the genre, such as the sons placing a cockroach on their mother as she sleeps and a dead cat eventually being preserved in a fish tank full of flammable liquid.
Then the third act takes place and the good will to Goodnight Mommy starts to dwindle. The plot twist of one of the sons being dead, and being imagined all this time by the surviving one, a la The Other (1972) in how the imagined one corrupts the still living brother, is absolutely galling when its revealed, set up in the beginning but still a cheap twist especially as the initial set up with its creepy sterile tone is so much more compelling in comparison. The third act also becomes more clichéd, not only in the mother being tied to the bed upstairs and shouting for help to visitors downstairs at one point, only interesting in a darkly humorous way in that it's two elderly Red Cross members very pushy about donations involved, the moment it does briefly turn into a Ulrich Seidl film, but that it becomes a prolonged series of torture sequences with one of the boys being coxed by his mother to let her free. This in itself it somewhat problematic, as it's a hybrid of Hostel (2005) to the type of extreme art cinema of now which doesn't try to dissect this type of image at the same time, but that it's also when the film suddenly turns into a slog, the final plot twist a final death blow to its virtues. The weird mix of unnerving tension, reminiscent of producer Seidl's own films, and grotesque flights of horror is ebbed away for generic modern ultra violence and bad plot twists, quashing the goodwill the first half Goodnight Mommy had built up.