I hadn’t realized the deficit until I saw the film, but it had been an astonishingly long while since I’d felt uneasy and mildly nauseated for almost two hours. You see, most American horror does wonders with jump scares and shock elements, but the Austrian-created Goodnight, Mommy starts by planting the bud of mild unease somewhere in your mind and in your gut, and then manages, assiduously throughout the film, to water and nourish that bud. By the end – at least, if you’re anything like me – you’re burying your head in your boyfriend’s shoulder (okay, a little pathetic, but in my defense, the film was very unsettling) and peeking up at the screen with a timid, wary eye.
Michael made the generous mistake of offering to watch four horror movies in exchange for two superhero movies, both of which are almost twice as long as a horror movie. I heard much whining and lamenting as we sat on the couch; he was, as it turns out, quite afraid of this film. But after viewing the first few scenes, he dubbed it an “artsy foreign film” and decided it wouldn’t be that bad.
Indeed, it is shot in German, meaning the viewer relies on the subtitles; while I thought that might do something to mitigate the film’s scare factor, in my opinion, that was not the case. I’d venture so far as to say it hardly matters at all what language the film was shot in; the dialogue is intentional and sparse, inserted only when it’s absolutely necessary to propel the plot forward or illustrate an unsettling reality. Characters are well-developed despite little talking. Much of the artistry in the film is visual, and the silence that accompanies certain scenes can seem all but deafening and amplifies the fright-factor.
“Mommy,” after her surgery is a sight to behold. The skin around her eyes emerges from a facial bandage, bruised and puffy, and it’s hard to not almost feel the vicarious pain of the surgery she had as you look at her face. Our introduction to post-surgery mommy is relatively calm; she seems decently agreeable, and it appears that she loves her two boys. But a series of uncomfortable scenes and vexing plot details will leave the astute watcher wondering three things: 1.) Is this person, “mommy?” 2.) If not, who or what is she/it? 3.) How sinister is this character? There is, as it turns out, a fine boundary between mildly negligent parenting and malice. Toward the film’s early-middle stages, mommy seems to span these categories.
The plot leaves us always expecting something terrible and giving us something different than we expected, if not equally uncomfortable. The twists further in the movie provide ample fodder for speculation, along with, as mentioned before, discomfort and borderline nausea. The filmmakers, I would argue, have an acute understanding of human pain, and how to both tap into our fear of that pain, and allow us to feel it empathetically. The film is not scary so much as it is chilling, not starting as much as it is unsettling. But it is captivating. I was never bored; if anything, I felt a little bombarded and overstimulated by the film, despite its sometimes subtle approach.
According to the IMDB posting about Goodnight Mommy the film was nominated for an Austrian Oscar Award. This was, to me, unsurprising. The acting is on-point (the little boys and their telling facial expressions are especially strong), and the film is, in a sometimes macabre way, artistic. Most importantly, this film stuck with my me; I thought about the plot into the wee hours of the night, as I was huddled over Bram Stoker’s Dracula, trying to enjoy some late 19th-century classic horror. And, for better or worse, I thought about the film as I was going to sleep. I don’t think I had nightmares, but perhaps I did, and don’t remember. In any case, Goodnight Mommy is a chilling addition to the horror pantheon.