Movie Review: ‘GOODNIGHT MOMMY’ Spooks and Dazzles

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

GOODNIGHT MOMMY | 99 min | R
Director: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Cast: Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz and Susanne Wuest

Children have long been used as a common trope when it comes to horror movies. From Rhoda in THE BAD SEED to Samara in THE RING, there seems to be a genuine creep factor that arises in the audience when a child is involved. But, what makes a child so terrifying that making them the villain would become a staple in horror movies? Maybe it’s the fact that innocence is a sensitive subject; that we need to make sure innocence stays in the world and is never corrupted. Another reason could be that we are never really ready to be parental, whether it’s clinging to irresponsibility or a reaction to something traumatic. In the Austrian thriller GOODNIGHT MOMMY, there is an examination of the latter. Something has happened to their mother, and the children must find out by any means necessary.

The story opens on Lukas and Elias (played by twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz) as they happily play a game of tag. The brothers are close and jovial, but nothing to sound off any alarms for the viewer. Then, Mother (Suzanne Wuest) arrives home from the hospital after undergoing plastic surgery. We see her bandaged and visibly awkward as she moves around. They live together in a secluded home away from the world, looking welcoming on the outside, but quiet and cold within its walls. Mother is unnecessarily strict on her children, causing the boys to realize that maybe their mother isn’t who she appears to be.

For much of this film, the narrative increases in tension that it goes through several genres in the process: A family drama turns into mystery; mystery turns into psychological thriller, which then becomes full-on horror. Because of the minimal use of location, there is a claustrophobic empathy felt for Lukas and Elias. We know they are in a strange place with Mother, and that she abuses them. She appears very concerned about body imagery, constantly looking in the mirror to rediscover herself inside. Is it vanity, due to her occupation as a television personality? Or did something happen to where she needed the operation? These questions ran through my mind as the story progressed. The mystery is the key as it gives the audience a sense of unease and internal conflict once the film reaches the outstanding third act.

Susanne Wuest plays one creepy mama in GOODNIGHT MOMMY. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Susanne Wuest is one creepy mama in GOODNIGHT MOMMY. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Co-directed and co-written by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, GOODNIGHT MOMMY learns to use the minimalistic setting as a way for the twins to get creative in figuring out if their Mother still exists. Don’t worry, I won’t go into any spoilers; I’ll just say that the methods they use are clearly the imagination of nine year-olds. The camera lingers just a little bit longer in order to create intrigue. For example, they all play a game of 21 Questions. The children’s answer is Mama; however, she can’t figure it out even though the answers regard her personal interest.

There’s also exceptional use of peaking curiosity through mise-en-scene. The house has a gray, mundane look on screen, even though it’s predominantly coated in white. Also, there are several portraits of Mother that are blurred to hint at the illusion of something off. While Mother is inherently something villain-like, the twins behave in a way that makes the audience notice something is off about them. They constantly whisper in one another’s ear, as well as collect cockroaches as pets. We are stuck in a purgatory-like discomfort as we sway back and forth between who is good and who is evil.

The only downside to a slow-burner plot is that, if not done right, can be somewhat dragging. I found myself sort-of getting lost in thought as the narrative trudged along, but then something would happen to put me back in my place. While there were slow-moving parts, I never really felt bored as I watched the horror unfold. GOODNIGHT MOMMY is something beautifully creepy that sticks with you days after your first viewing. I would go as far to say that it’s my favorite horror film of 2015. It’s not really children that we’re afraid of; it’s that their imaginations are so unpredictable that it makes us feel uneasy. Are they playing or are they playing nice? In the case of GOODNIGHT MOMMY, playtime doesn’t exist.

GOODNIGHT MOMMY opens in limited release tomorrow.
Dallas: Angelika Dallas

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.