There’s a small horror movie from Germany playing in select theaters right now that most critics are hailing as some kind of dark masterpiece in the vein of The Babadook and It Follows. That kind of praise, coupled with it’s creepy trailer, got my attention real quick so I’m sorry to report that Goodnight Mommy is a stunning disappointment. The characters are unlikeable and uninteresting, the scares are tedious or based around parlor tricks, the setting is bland and typical of most European horror flicks, and the twist is so painfully obvious I convinced myself that the movie must have either known that I had caught onto it as early as the second scene or had another card to play in the final act. I was wrong on both counts.
It’s somewhat unfair to condemn a movie solely because I guessed the twist immediately. What’s obvious to me may be a complete shock to someone else. The Visit’s twist made me gasp out loud but several friends of mine called it from the get-go. If we’re watching a movie just to be surprised by a twist, then we’re watching for the wrong reasons. You watch an episode of Tales from the Crypt for a twist. You watch a horror movie for dread-filled atmosphere, strong characters, and genuinely frightening ideas. Goodnight Mommy lacks all of these things. And the twist, whether you guess it or not, is a crummy one. It doesn’t hold up when you look back over the events of the film. Say what you want about M. Night Shyamalan and The Visit, but that’s a movie where the twist makes sense. All the twist in Goodnight Mommy does is frustrate the viewer and raise unanswerable questions about everything we’ve already seen.
The movie starts promisingly enough. We meet two twin brothers as they play around in the fields and woods surrounding their country home. They explore some hidden areas and swim around in a lake before a car horn calls them home. Their mother has returned from the hospital after undergoing surgery for an unknown reason (‘unknown reasons’ pop up a lot in this movie btw). Her face is scarred and covered in bandages. The boys are reluctant to go near her and something about her seems different. She’s harsher than she used to be. She tells the boys not to make too much noise, reminds them that she needs her rest, and ignores one boy while favoring the other one. Before long, they’re both convinced that this is not their mother, that she’s been replaced by some evil doppleganger who is filled with nothing but ill intent.
This is a terrific set-up for a horror picture, one with dark fairy tale undertones. It’s even similar to The Visit in that both films are about the mistrust children have for adults. Neither film tackles that idea with great depth but The Visit at least has compelling characters and provides scenes of equal parts mirth and malice. Goodnight Mommy presents us with this set-up and then does very little with it. The boys sneak a baby monitor into Mom’s room so they can hear what she does at night but nothing ever comes of that. They watch mom strip naked in the woods and transform into something but then wake up and realize it was only a dream. That pissed me off something fierce. Wasn’t the ‘it’s only a dream’ trope effectively retired as an effective scare tactic decades ago?
Beyond the slow pacing and lack of plot points, a bigger problem is that there is no one to root for. Mother is too unknowable and aloof for us to care about and the boys are…well…I might as well just say it…fucking annoying. They keep putting on these dopey, makeshift masks that the movie thinks are far scarier than they really are and, in other scenes, they simply stare at mom without doing anything. They’re not creepy, just weird and off-putting. I kept thinking of young Noah Wiseman in The Babadook. He was annoying at times but he was supposed to be annoying. When that movie wanted us to root for him though, we cheered him on. Goodnight Mommy holds the two boys away from us, never allowing us to understand exactly why they’re so troubled, because it’s far too concerned with it’s precious twist. We never get to know any of the characters cuz the flick wants us to keep guessing long past the point where we care. As a result, all three main characters live in this state where they all might be crazy or they all might not be and we sit there waiting for the movie to come down on either side. When it finally does, it’s underwhelming to say the least.
The third act is particularly problematic as the movie shifts from psychological horror (or lack thereof) to body horror. I’ve long been numb to violence in movies. It’s hard to disturb me and Goodnight Mommy didn’t really but much of the final act was extremely unpleasant to watch. Not disturbing, not frightening, merely unpleasant and depressing. The movie sets itself up as a thinking person’s horror film and then descends into violence and torture. It’s a jarring shift that the flick doesn’t come close to earning. I have no problem with violence in movies, particularly in horror movies. There’s a French film, called Martyrs, that is easily the most violent, fucked up film I have ever seen. It’s effective but I never want to watch it again. Still, Martyrs is a movie about violence and depravity. It lets you know that right away. Goodnight Mommy suggests it wants to dig deeper but then settles on a bunch of jump scares and cheap tricks to make it’s final act work. The most jarring moment in the film is based around a trap that would fit right in in Home Alone.
Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps my guessing the twist so early affected my view of the rest of the film. Perhaps I’m holding horror to a higher standard after a year that gave me The Babadook, It Follows, Spring, and even The Visit. Whatever the reason, Goodnight Mommy didn’t work for me at all. I wouldn’t recommend it to mainstream audiences or to seasoned horror fans. You want to see a great, disturbing, foreign horror film about a stranger who destroys a family? Check out a little known flick called Borgman. The setting is similar but the ideas are so much scarier. It’s also a movie with humor, of which this film has none, except for a spectacularly out of place scene involving two Red Cross volunteers. It’s not easy to make an effective horror film. Goodnight Mommy is proof of that.