By Peg Aloi
This American remake does not have the power, the confidence of tone, or the aesthetic artistry to measure up to the horrifying original.
When I reviewed the film Goodnight Mommy here in 2015, I wrote “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.” I re-watched it in preparation for writing this review and can say it still holds up: it is brilliant and terrifying. However the American remake directed by Matt Sobel (Brand New Cherry Flavor) does not have the power, the confidence of tone, or the aesthetic artistry to measure up to the original. Although the very small cast, including Naomi Watts as the unnamed “Mommy” and Nicholas and Cameron Crovetti as the twins Lucas and Elias (originally played by Lukas and Elias Schwarz), is perfectly fine, the writing here relies on predictable, expository dialogue. The original,by making use of long periods of silence, told the story with much more tension and mystery.
As this new version opens, we see a video playing on a smartphone of a young mother (Naomi Watts) singing to her two twin boys at bedtime. She protests at being filmed by her husband, saying “No, I look ancient!” which is a somewhat clumsy lead-in to what comes next. (Contrast that with the choice of the original film, which shows a ’50s era color video of a picture-perfect family singing Brahms’ “Lullaby” in German.) We then see Elias (Cameron Crovetti) in the back seat of an SUV being driven by his father (Peter Hermann) to his ex-wife’s country home: a huge Scandinavian-looking modern edifice surrounded by woods. This is a nod to the first film, which also features a large and well-appointed contemporary home surrounded by cornfields and forests. That film, however, shows the twins romping in the cornfields and playing in the forest, relishing the wild nature around them and playing various games. These scenes also emphasize the remoteness of the location and the solitude of their play: a detail that resonates when the film’s major plot reveal occurs near the end. The remake telegraphs the big revelation and the secret plot twist rather early on. If you know that to look for. Also, interestingly, the original never shows the twins’ father. In fact, he is barely mentioned at all (just a brief reference to “the separation”).
The twins clamber out of the car, dressed identically, a motif that continues throughout. In the original, the boys also wear identical clothes, except for the first scene, where their outfits are identical but for one detail: Elias wears a white shirt, and Lukas a black one. The foreshadowing in the original is far subtler than in the remake, where the director chooses to show Elias looking over at an empty seat beside him in the SUV. Elias asks his dad if he’s coming in and he responds “I don’t think your mother wants to see me right now.” The father says he will see them soon. His parting comment is “Be nice to your mother!” which, for viewers who’ve seen the original, rings as a horrifying hint of what is to come.
The boys see their mother in a silky robe with her face in bandages. They’re somewhat shocked and she explains to them she needs to rest and heal. Their ensuing mischief, coupled with their mother’s fatigue and general stress, creates a chaotic atmosphere. This intensifies when the boys decide this bandaged person is not their mother at all, but some kind of imposter. Watts looks much less scary in these bandages than German actress Susanne Wuest, who was shown with dark bruises all around her eyes. Also, Watts’ face is covered in a bandage that’s somewhat like a white balaclava: when she changes it, she slips it on and off. In the original, these bandages have to be wrapped and taped on, a detail that contributed greatly to the tension to come. This is but one of a number of deviations from the original that undercut the story’s terror.
I also noted in my earlier review that this story bears a slight similarity to a made-for-TV film based on a Tom Tryon novel called The Other, also about two twin boys, one of whom seems to always be getting into trouble and who blames the other for egging him on. The Austrian version of Goodnight Mommy is very focused on the twins. As their behavior begins to ratchet up, the cold calculation and cruelty with which they attempt to subdue and punish their mother becomes more and more extreme. In the remake, the mother is at the center of the plot (there are scenes that hint at her narcissism and anxiety about aging). What’s more, she also manages to more or less gain the upper hand at the end, at least briefly. Despite Watts’ excellent performance, I felt there was a bit too much effort made in the dialogue to portray her as sympathetic, as opposed to allowing the actress to effectively embody a more complex character. I appreciated the sparseness of the dialogue in the original, and the powerful visual storytelling. The stunningly straightforward cinematography of Martin Gschlacht (Little Joe) imbues that film with a palpable tone of disquiet and dread.
There is no question this remake was crafted to appeal to an American audience. It pains me to acknowledge it, but foreign films are not as popular as they should be here. But the European vibe and sensibility seems crucial to making this story work; there is a nuance to its look and feel that lets the suspense build gradually. American made horror leans (too often) on expository dialogue and extraneous characters to support the plot and this problematic remake is no different. This is screenwriter Kyle Warren’s first feature (with credited writing assistance from the original screenwriters, who also wrote and directed the American horror film The Lodge). His previous work for TV includes Lethal Weapon (a genre not known for complex storytelling). Still, the main elements of the story are hewed to in this remake and its climax is horrific. Both films share one trait: they become increasingly suspenseful and increasingly difficult to watch, yet it becomes impossible to look away.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.