Film Review/Commentary: “Goodnight Mommy”—We Have Met the Enemy and He is Ours

One wishes for horror films that know what they are doing: that manage to be intelligent, clever, original, and genuinely disturbing.

A scene from the amazing horror/thriller "Cold in July."

A scene from the amazing horror/thriller “Cold in July.”

By Peg Aloi

In recent years, an increasingly minimal approach to horror, more psychological than visceral, has yielded some effective results, with the release of films that leave us feeling unsettled, uneasy, and wishing we had brighter lights in our homes. Perhaps because the horror genre is so wildly popular, and the variations on it had become so trite and overdone, the familiar tropes had ceased to really frighten us: the sudden jump scares, the torture porn, the deeply disturbed serial killer whose motives remain a mystery. When “new” ideas in horror came around, it seems as if they were quickly co-opted and made banal.

The found footage genre was fun for a while: introduced to mainstream audiences via 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, it has been imitated countless times since, usually in a derivative or ham-fisted manner. The best example might be the 2010 Norwegian film Trollhunter, partly a fake documentary that uses a found footage conceit. Some of the worst include The Paranormal Activity franchise, which doesn’t even bother to say the footage was “found,” but simply presents video material meant to freak us out.

Another tiresome trope is the “haunted house that has spirits that possess people and makes them act like zombies or do weird stuff for no reason.” The latest incarnation of this annoying trend is The Inhabitants, in which a young urban couple decide to open a bed and breakfast in a house that seems to be haunted, and the young wife seems to be possessed by a ghost, and seems to want to kill everyone, and seems to then remain in the house afterward, presumably to wreak mayhem. I could not make heads nor tails of it.

One wishes for horror that knows what it is doing: that manages to be intelligent, clever, original, and genuinely disturbing. It Follows wasn’t bad; at least the central idea was kind of new: the mode of possession that makes people act like weird zombies (motivated by—what? We don’t know) travels from one person to another via sex. But it didn’t go far enough; I mean, there should have been a lot more sex in that film.

The last two recent horror films I’ve really liked were both by filmmaker Jim Mickle: Stake Land and We Are What We Are. Just see them. But there’s a new one, Cold in July, making the rounds on the indie theatre circuit that is one of the most interesting and shocking additions to the genre in years. It genuinely creeped me out and had me covering my face with my hands, and, well, that’s not really me.

Austrian co-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have made what may be the best horror film of the year and one of the scariest of all time. Goodnight Mommy is at once spare and lush, with artful photography that draws the viewer in and a mise en scene so full of unusual and surprising imagery that it almost seems generated at random.

A scene from the unsettling horror film "Goodnight Mommy."

A scene from the unsettling horror film “Goodnight Mommy.”

The story is not easy to unravel. A pair of nine-year-old twin boys, Lukas and Elias (played by Lukas and Elias Shwarz), are alone in their remote, well-appointed home when their mother (Susanne Wuest) arrives home, her face wrapped in bandages (presumably from cosmetic surgery). She greets them warmly, then tells them she is under her doctor’s orders to rest, and asks that they not disturb her.

The twins are similar enough to confuse, but different enough to tell apart. Elias seems quieter and more thoughtful and, based upon his mother’s treatment of him, is the better-behaved one. Lukas seems to be perpetually in trouble; his eyes signal a twinkle of mischief that in Elias seems mere thoughtfulness. They’re very close, finishing each other’s sentences, sharing food and drink, having burping contests, and egging each other on to misbehave.

When their mother finally removes her bandages, and shows her carefully made up face to her sons, the twins remain silent a moment then run away into the woods. After coming back they continue to insist she is not their mother. She has little patience for what she perceives as a game. Tension in the house escalates and the twins soon gain the upper hand. To reveal more would be to ruin the premise and plot twist. But it is important to point out that the mood of the film owes a great deal to an American made-for-TV film of the 1970s, The Other (based upon the excellent novel by Tom Tryon). In The Other, two young twins (about nine?), Niles and Holland Perry, also live in a remote house, and, like Lukas and Elias, one of the boys is in trouble for his misbehavior much more often than his brother. Like Lukas and Elias, the boys are fiercely loyal to one another and like to keep secrets.

The tiny cast of Goodnight Mommy is impressive indeed: the naturalistic style is perfect for the slow building tension that heats up to fever pitch by the climax. The house, which figures heavily in the mood and tension of the story, is an architectural marvel but its minimalist décor and frigid colors are at odds with the rustic outdoor environments the twins live to play in: cornfields, forests, mausoleums. We feel the house to be a sort of prison and the boys do, too. When they misbehave, their mother punishes them by confinement, locking them in their bedroom. We, too, feel trapped and unable to escape, unable to turn away, as horror after horror emerges from this world where nine-year-old boys hold sway, where nine-year-old boys know what is best, where nine-year-old boys can make us wish we hadn’t moved to the middle of nowhere.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for called The Witching Hour.

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