Friday, December 18, 2015

Goodnight Mommy

Ever since it debuted at last year's Venice Film Festival, the Austrian import "Goodnight Mommy" has been building up a reputation as a horror exercise of the highest order—the kind of film that could supposedly reduce even the hardiest of observers into quivering blobs of jelly squirming in their seats, partly out of what is happening on the screen and partly out of fear of what might be coming just around the corner. As someone who has seen more than his fair share of such films that have failed to live up to their hype over the years, I tend to approach such things with more than a healthy dose of skepticism. In this particular case, the movie in question has more than lived up to its advanced word. In fact, co-filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have conjured an intelligently staged and executed creepfest that takes one of the most universally compelling of notions—the unbreakable bond that exists between a mother and her children—and approaches it in such a formally and narratively bleak manner that it makes the works of fellow countryman Michael Haneke seeming almost benign by comparison.

As the film opens, 10-year-old twin brothers Lukas and Elias (played by real-life twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz) are playing tag in the cornfield outside their isolated home while waiting the return of their mother (Susanne Wuest) from facial surgery. In theory, this should be a joyous time but from the moment she returns home, her head completely swathed in bandages, it quickly becomes apparent that something is not quite right. Instead of the warm and cheerful presence that she apparently was before going away, she is now as cold and remote as the house they uncomfortably share (with its brutally sterile air and large supply of unnerving nooks, crannies and hallways, it seems to have been designed by the people who did the residence of the good doctor from "The Human Centipede") and demands constant quiet and no sunlight to help aid in her recovery. To make matters even more off-putting, she has begun to clearly favor Lukas over Elias, even going so far as to refuse to even speak to the latter for unknown reasons.

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Squirming just below the surface of Goodnight Mommy, a nerve-shredding new thriller from far-flung Austria, is an almost comically predictable plot twist. Moviegoers hip to the true identities of Tyler Durden and Keyser Söze should figure it out by the end of the first reel, when the filmmakers have already begun to show their hand. But you don’t go to a midnight movie to have your mind blown. You go to have your stomach churned, your hairs put on end, your fingers forced over your eyes. And by that base criteria, this elegantly nasty little potboiler should satisfy those brave enough to brave it. They might see the big reveal coming, but that won’t help them unsee the horrors leading up to it.

Nearly all of the film takes place in a secluded country house, surrounded by an idyllic forest and vast cornfields, perfect for frolicking and fleeing. This is the new home of 9-year-old twins Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz), as well as their mother (Susanne Wuest), an anchorwoman who’s just undergone cosmetic surgery. To these troublemaking boys, there’s something not quite right about Mommy: Beyond her strange, frightening appearance—a pair of bloodshot eyes peeping out from behind a mask of bandages—she just seems different. For one thing, she’ll barely acknowledge Lukas’ existence, addressing only Elias and providing the boys with a single dinner, one set of clothes in the morning, etc. Soon, the brothers begin to wonder if it’s someone else entirely under all that gauze—if, in fact, their mother has been replaced by a malevolent imposter.

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