Like most modern horror films, the new Austrian film “Goodnight Mommy” aims more to be disturbing than genuinely scary. After some early atmospheric thrills, the film turns to blood, gore and body horror. Still, “Goodnight Mommy” offers conclusive proof that horror built on mind-bending twists and sheer fucked-upedness can be just as effective as horror built on sustained terror.
After an unspecified accident that left her badly hurt, a nameless mother (Susanne Wuest, “Antares”) undergoes a serious operation, leaving her face wrapped in bandages. After finding mysterious photographs and observing their mother’s strangely cold behavior, identical twins Elias and Lukas (newcomers Elias and Lukas Schwarz) begin to suspect that the woman in their house is an entirely different person from their mother. Over the course of the film, the twins make it their mission to figure out this new woman’s identity and locate their real mom.
The first half of “Goodnight Mommy” follows a familiar pattern in horror. It’s a normal day until strange things start popping up. Gradually the events become odder and more sinister until they climax in bloodshed and insanity. Elias and Lukas’s mother imposes strict bedtime rules, completely lacking the warmth they remember, and in one scene featuring a game like 20 Questions, she fails to guess that the person they’re describing is herself. By the time half of the film has passed, Elias and Lukas are determined to find their real mother.
If the first half seems predictable, its slow pace is easily made tolerable by a few key details. Writer-directors Veronika Franz (“Dog Days”) and Severin Fiala (“Kern”) are fantastic at creating atmosphere; the film’s secluded setting in a house far from town is almost always framed in broad daylight, which somehow seems even more threatening than in darkness. The trees shake softly in the wind, the pond’s surface gently rippling, and Olga Neuwirth’s score is kept to a minimum to disquieting effect.
Another big strength of the slow build-up is the dynamic between Elias and Lukas. As the protagonists, the Schwarz twins convey a deep bond with few words. What’s most refreshing about their fear of their mother’s impostor is how naturally and understatedly it develops. There’s no artificial revelatory moment when the characters find one final piece of proof that the woman isn’t their mother. They begin to accept it slowly and without melodrama. When one twin lies crying on the bed, the other tenderly lays a hand on his side. Before long, the twins are calmly preparing for battle, sharpening sticks as makeshift weapons and sleeping in shifts. Elias and Lukas are fascinating in their silent drawing of conclusions, unusual in a genre filled with brash, ignorant protagonists unequipped to discover the obvious truth.
After the halfway point, though, “Goodnight Mommy” dives into insanity, bombarding viewers with unsettling images and incredulous revelations. The shock of some twists will depend entirely on viewers’ prior experience searching for twist endings. In retrospect, some are foreshadowed to the point of obviousness, but thanks to the film’s dedication to misdirection, it’s easy to ignore the signs pointing there.
Though third-act realizations answer some questions, and though the film leaves its characters’ fates clear, there are threads throughout the story that remain unexplained and ambiguous. Many of these can be explained psychologically without any strict logistical sense, but some red herrings don’t quite fit with the truth in any apparent way. References to the past are kept vague, like the nature of the mother’s accident. The film’s understated quality may be both its greatest strength and its greatest flaw; though highly retentive viewers looking for closure may crave handy flashbacks explaining the entire backstory, “Goodnight Mommy” is ultimately a better movie because it refuses to spell everything out.