Austria, whose cinema presence might be summed up as being the setting for The Sound of Music (which, on a side note, will have a sing-a-long screening at the Cornell Cinema later this Fall), happens also to be the source of a few very serious and somewhat twisted filmmakers, such as Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and more recently Michael Haneke. They all share a penchant for wicked stories usually involving innocent children and abusive parents, but more often than not, the roles are reversed and you rather get abusive children and innocent parents. One recent example is Haneke’s celebrated Funny Games, which was remade shot-for-shot in the United States with Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as two teenagers who invade the home of Naomi Watts and Tim Roth to play a series of violent sadistic games.
So you can see where Austrians Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are coming from when they go on to write and direct Goodnight Mommy, one most chilling horror films of this year. In it we have a pair of twins, played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz (who both keep their names for their characters), confronting their defaced mother (Susanne West), who underwent facial reconstruction surgery after an accident. The nature of such accident and any other details are omitted, except for the fact that it was followed by her divorce from the kids father.
Much like in Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, the surgery seems to alter not only the mother’s appearance but also her personality and her behavior towards the children, who grow suspicious of her and start to question her identity. Some abuse and a lock up follows as the the children get more distrustful and disrespectful of their mother’s orders. It’s hard to be sure about the mother’s motives and her harsh measures makes the viewer side with the kids.
An escape attempt fails and that’s when the film quickly shifts gears. Back home, the kids remain obsessed about their mother’s identity and so they manage to tie her up to her bed and begin a desperate attempt to extract the truth out of her. The differences in character between the brothers, which up to this point had been blurred, start to get more clear as one. One clearly dominates the plotting of the cruelty acts that ensue while the other submissively enacts them, to the audience’s shock. Horror cinema is filled with these twin figures (and brothers and doubles) who always manage to creep us out with their “fearful symmetry,” but it’s only when the camera gets close enough so that we can distinguish them that things get more interesting.
The film, however, never goes much deeper into moral issues or consequences of the children’s actions. It does offer a bit more in the sense of explanation (though to discuss it would spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet) but it in no way tries to go beyond the psychological realm where other filmmakers have managed to dig a little deeper. Think for instance of another Haneke picture, The White Ribbon, which chronicled some strange happenings in a small village where the kids start behaving in an evil fashion. Though never explicitly the film parallels the beginnings of Nazism out of the repressive society that originated it.
Goodnight Mommy doesn’t exactly deviate from this motif of repression and complicated Christian morality issues but in its final part it ends up siding with another trend in horror cinema — focusing on the psychological implications and pressures of parenting and growing up, just like last year’s Australian hit The Babadook. It also surrenders to the sadistic fare we see in modern American horror, to the point where the audience may get excited by the awful depictions of cruelty and pain.
One can say that the film generally succeeds by occupying a middle ground between arthouse psychological thriller and Halloween-type popcorn horror. It certainly offers more food for thought than the average horror you might see on theaters in the next few weeks but it also won’t bore you to death or embarrass you if you go see it with a date.
Bruno Costelini is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.