There is an innocence and earnestness to the way that children experience the world. There's something about running around in the rain, or traipsing through the woods as a child that hints at a world of wonder that jaded adult eyes can’t quite see. Maybe it is the glut of imagination that children seem to have, as all the fine lines have not been shaded in yet, and most anything seems possible before you take in some of the harder and maybe even more unpleasant facts of the world. But where there is room for this sort of magical-realism realm to exist, there is also the opportunity for something more sinister to slip in. Pan's Labyrinth handles this concept extremely well, showing the hopeful idealism of childhood dissolve into the conniving terror that was always lurking behind the curtain. In Goodnight Mommy we experience a relatively normal world through children's eyes, and it quickly takes a turn towards that sort-of dark unknown, the same place where shadows turn into monsters and your own house can become inexplicably menacing.
The last couple of years have been a surprisingly good time for horror movies. After the strange resurgence of slashers in the early 2000's and the welcome (well, by myself at least), but overstayed fad of Torture-based horror, we have finally settled down into a space of psychologically driven horror that plays on the ordinary as questionable, or outright evil. The Babadook was one of my favorite films of last year and the most frightening film I had seen since The Ring (which it owes a certain debt to). It Follows was praised by many as a return to the atmospheric, John Carpenter type horror film (which I still haven't seen). Even documentaries got into the horror game with Rodney Ascher's strange but compelling The Nightmare. All this to say that horror has had a good run lately, and Goodnight Mommy keeps that streak going, even if to a slightly lesser degree.
What Goodnight Mommy, along with the new crop of horror films, gets right is that it doesn't feel the need to fully explain itself. The film throws you into the middle of a tumultuous time in a family's life, a mother and twin boys that are slowly recovering from a mercurial divorce/accident, at an extremely nice but remote home next to a lake. The movie never pulls far back from the boys as they do normal child things and as their mother, wrapped in gauze, is apparently not acting like the mother these boys remember. As the boys become further convinced that this menacing woman is simply masquerading as their mom they delve further and further into the mystery, as what's real and what's imaginary become blurred in a cabin-fever'esque paranoia.
There are many small touches to Goodnight Mommy that make the film work exceptionally well, mostly due to the unsettling imagery throughout the film. There are artful photos on the wall of the home that suggest the mother is in them, but they are all out of focus, leaving the figure blurry, as if squinting your eyes hard enough might just get at the truth. The mother's face is also not shown, being constantly wrapped in gauze. While you have not seen the mother outside of the gauze, you get the conveyance that the children recognize aspects of her, but they are slightly out of focus like the paintings on the wall.
The performances in the film are also stellar. The twins, played by boys with the same first names in the movie (Lukas & Elias Schwarz) come off as believable, and really capture the way that children seem to drift in and out of their little worlds, where games can be momentarily exciting but also threatened with the existential ennui of "bored now" at any moment. They are the heart and focus of the movie and for such young children they do a remarkably good job of holding that focus. The unnamed mother, played by Susanne Wuest, plays to the tone of the film brilliantly, as it becomes harder to tell which part is her and which part may be in the overactive children's imagination.
I highly recommend Goodnight Mommy, though it is a very ephemeral film in the end, and I especially recommend seeing it before Hollywood catches on to this new interest in these foreign psychological horror films that attempt to touch the viewer's humanity first, to more effectively frighten them later. I say this because I imagine remakes of at least one of these films is coming and Hollywood doesn’t get this kind of subtlety, and it especially doesn't understand visceral horror the way that under-budgeted, non-crowd-sourced horror films do. Hollywood really only stands to muck-up this resurgence of genuine horror films. So get on the boat before they run it into an iceberg.
Goodnight Mommy is available to rent through Amazon.