We’ve made it into 2016 so cheers to that! I’m excited for the year ahead in film and hope we’ll get to see some real masterpieces in the year ahead.
If you’re looking for something cheerful and upbeat to keep the festive season going, I’m afraid today’s movie isn’t going to help you. But you may take something else of value from it. As a warning, I just want to say that it’s difficult to discuss this movie and its themes without possibly revealing some spoilers, so if you want to watch this with absolutely no knowledge of it, better read this review after you’ve had a chance to see the movie.
Goodnight Mommy is an Austrian movie which takes place in a modern country house and the surrounding countryside. We meet the twin brothers, Lukas and Elias, who seem to spend their days playing in the woods and fields largely unsupervised. Their mother returns to the house to recover from plastic surgery, her head and face bandaged completely, making her difficult to recognise. The boys seem disturbed by their mother’s new appearance and start to observe behaviour from her which doesn’t fit with the mother they know. They become suspicious and start to explore the possibility that the person behind the bandage may not be their mother at all. Testing her in ways that become increasingly disturbing, Goodnight Mommy leaves you wondering who you need to fear; masked adult with bloodshot eyes or the freckle-faced young boys.
It’s a common theme in horror movies to use evil children to scare the living daylights out of you; The Omen, Children of the Corn, Mean Girls…okay, that last one is a stretch, but only by a little bit. Recently, however, I feel like I’ve seen a change towards a more realistic portrayal of disturbed children, children who do not fit our society’s expectations of normal behaviour, rather than your more common Spawn of the Devil/possessed by evil spirits-child.
One of the best horror movies of recent years was the sublime The Babadook. The horror in that film is not so much to do with the titular boogey man character but rather to do with the fraught relationship between mother and child. Another movie, The Orphanage, also explores some more than challenging aspects of parenthood that are far scarier than the ghostly apparitions in the film. Goodnight Mommy explores some of these same areas to chilling effect.
I wonder if this could be a whole genre of its own; Parental Horror? The fear that parents, particularly mothers, have of having to deal with a challenging child and being branded as an incompetent parent when you fail is not to be downplayed. It is an alienating, identity-anihilating experience not unlike having a bucket of pig’s blood dropped on you in front of your peers.
I will say, though, that I am not sure this movie can be correctly classified as a horror movie. Yes, the last third is unequivocally a horror, with some incredibly hard to watch scenes of violence. But leading up to that it is a very slow exploration of the dynamic in this secluded household, and I think many who might go into this expecting thrills and scares will feel disappointed. It fits maybe somewhere between a psychological thriller and a horror, but a slow version.
Similarly to The Gift, which I reviewed recently , the house in Goodnight Mommy is like a character in its own right, offering us clues and setting the mood for the film.
Throughout the house, we glimpse huge canvas photos of a person we can only assume to be the mother, but all the photos are blurry, so that she is out of focus. These canvases help us piece together a picture of the boys’ mother as someone whose sense of self is anchored strongly in her appearance. But the blurriness adds a disturbing feel to the photos, taking them beyond your standard narcissistic celebrations of female beauty. There are also some candid snapshots of the mother before her surgery which leave you wondering: why did she feel the need for surgery in the first place? Nothing is directly spelled out in this movie, but there are plenty of elements which leave you puzzling with pieces of the story, trying to figure out how they fit together.
In short, Goodnight Mommy is not afraid to explore some really dark themes, pushing us towards the uncomfortable. It doesn’t handle these themes as entertainingly as some other movies, but it is a worthwhile addition to a growing collection of films that seek to scare us not with horrors that come from another world but with horrors that we fear most right here in our own world.
As always, I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments section. Much obliged.