Goodnight Mommy, which we saw on Saturday as part of the New Directors New Films series, is not scheduled to open in this country until September, but I’m too excited by the film to wait until then to write about it. Written and directed by Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, this is unlike any horror film I can recall. Actually, though Goodnight Mommy fits the bill, I think calling it a horror film is reductive, because there’s much more going on, both on and beneath the surface. Goodnight Mommy both honors genre conventions and puts its own spin on them. It’s disturbing and frightening in ways I haven’t seen before.
Most films work best the less you know about them going in, especially this one, so I’ll try to be brief and careful here. This will be more of an alert than a review. Goodnight Mommy opens with nine-year-old twin brothers, Elias and Lukas (Elias & Lukas Schwarz, amazing in their roles), playing hide and seek in a field thick with grown corn. They live in an ultra-modern house isolated in the countryside, filled with arty photographs, expansive windows, and a crucifix prominently displayed on their bedroom wall. It turns out they’re waiting for their mother (Susanne Wuest), who returns from some form of facial reconstructive surgery, her head wrapped in bandages like a mummy or the Invisible Man. They can’t see her face, and her behavior makes them increasingly suspicious. Who is this woman? What did she do with their mother? (And what’s with that aquarium tank filled with huge Madagascar cockroaches they keep as pets?) The twins’ attempts to uncover the truth have lethal results.
Goodnight Mommy reminds me of films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Invaders from Mars (1953), with their themes of replicated people, though it has none of their sci-fi trappings. Body Snatchers, with its pod-people metaphor, is an authentic classic. Invaders is a pretty cheesy production, but telling its story from the point of view of it’s 10-year-old protagonist was very effective, especially if you saw it at that age, as I did. In both films there is the paranoid feeling that the people you know are not the people you know. Goodnight Mommy‘s genuine strangeness also reminds me of filmmakers such as Michael Haneke, David Lynch and David Cronenberg — plus it has visual echos of George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960). If an aquarium filled with cockroaches creeps you out, you’re not alone. But it’s not just the image; it’s the significance it has in the film that creates a sense of dread beyond the visceral jolt of what you see. This is the kind of thing Cronenberg specializes in.
As Cronenberg’s films often do, Goodnight Mommy makes you afraid of what you might see next. Yes, give me more of that! Visually it’s amazing, and there are twists before it’s over. Seriously, it’s really great. Be on the lookout for Goodnight Mommy when it opens this August. It’s in a league of its own. — Ted Hicks