Stuart Gordon is a writer/director/producer of film, television and theater. He is best known for the cult classic Re-Animator and for murdering his wife Carolyn in his films whenever possible.
About 10 minutes into the screening of Goodnight Mommy at the Stanley Film Festival last June, an audience member suffered a seizure and they had to stop the film to remove her from the theater so she could receive medical help. This may not have had anything to do with Goodnight Mommy, but I can’t help thinking it did. This is a dangerous film, and it may be hazardous to your mental health. The movie begins with an old clip of the Trapp Family Singers’ rendition of “Lullaby and Good Night,” which gives us a false sense of security. But from that moment on a strong sense of foreboding takes over, and it was just a few minutes later when the woman in the audience began to have her seizure. To be precise, it happened when the film’s two main characters, a pair of 10-year-old identical twin boys, entered a cave and were consumed by the darkness.
H.P. Lovecraft famously said that the fear of the unknown is the strongest fear, and this image of going into a dark place is repeated several times during the course of Goodnight Mommy. Fortunately there were no further seizures, but the effect the film leaves on the viewer is that you’ve experienced a traumatic event so powerful you can’t get it out of your mind. You’ll be thinking about this movie for the rest of your life. Goodnight Mommy is simply the best horror film of the year, which is saying a great deal as 2015 has already been filled with an embarrassment of cinematic riches.
The story seems quite simple: a mother returns to her twin sons with her face bandaged. She has undergone extensive plastic surgery to correct damage from what we later learn was a disfiguring car accident. The bandages give her face the disturbing appearance of a skull and reminded me of the plastic surgeon’s unfortunate daughter in the French classic Eyes Without a Face. Very creepy. And the mother’s desire to keep the shades drawn and the house in darkness furthers the sense of uneasiness.
Seemingly gone is the twins’ once-loving parent, and they begin to wonder if this really is their mother or if someone, or something, has replaced her. To tell much more would be a disservice to the film, which builds a growing sense of dread that becomes absolutely overpowering by its mind-bending conclusion.
Made in Austria and written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Goodnight Mommy is the collaborators’ first feature, although Franz is married to famed filmmaker Ulrich Seidl, who also produced. Both Franz and Fiala have been quoted in the press about their love of the horror genre and their film has already been compared to the work of fellow Austrian director Michael Haneke. But unlike Haneke, who has expressed disdain for the genre, this pair has embraced horror and Franz has even stated that, in her opinion, all Austrian films are horror films.
Goodnight Mommy is extremely well made. The directors create a dreamlike atmosphere: the family is completely isolated in the Austrian countryside, living in a stylish modernistic house whose walls are covered with sterile, shadow-like paintings. The boys’ only pets are numerous large hissing cockroaches in a tank – that is, until they discover an abandoned cat in a moldering crypt littered with human bones. These haunting locations contrast with their glorious surroundings: golden fields of wheat, tall green cornfields, dense forests and sparkling blue lakes. The dazzling cinematography by Martin Gschlacht and spare music by Olga Neuwirth together weave a hypnotic spell that draws us into this strange yet believable world.
But it is the exceptional, finely nuanced performances by Susanne Wuest as the mother and Lukas and Elias Schwarz as the twins that power this amazing film. I can only wonder how the children were made to feel comfortable performing within this nightmarish scenario. But perhaps the film’s original title, Ich Seh Ich Seh (I See, I See), presents a clue. It is the title of a Germanic children’s game similar to our “I Spy with My Little Eye,” and the sense of game-playing is clearly integral to the film.
Recently we in the horror genre have been blessed with the emergence of incredibly talented female directors. We’ve seen great work from Australian Jennifer Kent, director of The Babadook, which also explores a disturbing mother-child relationship, and Leigh Janiak, whose Honeymoon turns marriage into a Lovecraftian nightmare. Previously considered a “guys’ thing,” the world of horror movies has shifted, with both audiences and filmmakers becoming more representative of both sexes. In fact, I was told that there were more female than male attendees at this year’s Stanley Film Festival.
The horror film has taken its place as cinema’s most popular genre for both men and women. And for this great film to originate in Austria – a country, like Germany, that until recently banned horror – makes it all the more miraculous. In fact, it was just announced that Goodnight Mommy will be Austria’s official entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.