Editor’s Note: This essay contains spoilers.
The most immediately impressive aspect of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s chilling feature Goodnight Mommy is how quickly the film conjures a buzzing atmosphere of wrongness from mundane raw materials. This is evident even before the title card appears. The film opens with a clip from the 1956 West German feature The Trapp Family, in which the eponymous clan sings Johannes Brahms’ lullaby “Good Evening, Good Night.” Standing alone, such wholesome treacle would be innocuous enough, but juxtaposed against what follows, it becomes a point of skin-crawling dissonance.
The film follows young twins Lukas and Elias as they wander through the sun-kissed Austrian countryside, engaged in the sort of aimless tomfoolery that preoccupies middle schoolers. As cicadas trill, the boys chase each other through rows of ripening corn, bounce on the spongy surface of a bog, and creep tentatively into the echoing darkness of a culvert. In another film, such scenes of youthful summer mischief would convey warmth and perhaps a hint of nostalgia. However, writer-directors Fiala and Franz have more sinister concerns in mind, as evidenced by an extended slow zoom into the chthonian blackness of the aforementioned tunnel, and in particular by Olga Neuwith’s sparse, quiet, and profoundly unsettling score. Something dire looms over these scenes of childhood idleness.
Much of Goodnight Mommy unfolds within and around the twins’ home, a well-to-do modernist house of prim Continental tastefulness. Its rooms and corridors are comprised of white, angular spaces that are bounded by wood, stone, metal, and glass surfaces. The building’s spotless but still cozy contemporary furniture and understated objets d’art signify the antithesis of the musty, crumbling estate featured in so many horror tales. (Indeed, Goodnight Mommy’s house is a veritable inversion of the rotting, opulent manor in Guillermo del Toro’s recent gothic mystery Crimson Peak.) However, what should be a stylish but inviting space spilling with summer light is instead suffused with indefinite ominousness. The structure feels cool and faintly forlorn, like an art gallery closed for a holiday. The floor-to-ceiling windows are fitted with blinds, but these often remain shut, drenching the house’s interior in watery grays. Darkness is the preference of the boys’ Mother, a television personality who has recently returned to the house following facial cosmetic surgery. Indeed, when the twins first glimpse the Mother upon her homecoming, they find her fiddling with the blinds in her bedroom. Her appearance—her face purplish and puffy beneath a mask of white bandages—takes the brothers aback, as does the sharpness of her manner. The boys’ wide, darting eyes reveal a faint unspoken suspicion: Something seems off about Mom.
In the ensuing days of the Mother’s convalescence, awkward interactions and odd behaviors accumulate like black insects on sticky flypaper. It is not always apparent whether or not such a dynamic preceded the Mother’s departure for surgery, which only accentuates the film’s gnawing sense of uncanniness. Some moments hint at latent tensions that have long been gestating, such as the way the Mother seems to treat Lukas with punitive, markedly un-parental hostility. “You only made supper for me,” Elias observes dejectedly. “You know why,” is her icy reply.
As in Yorgos Lanthimos’ demented masterpiece Dogtooth, the viewer must piece together this household’s strange dynamic from fragments. The boys are forbidden to lock the door to their room. Oral hygiene is a priority: The twins must brush and floss each night for the duration of a ticking kitchen timer, although they inexplicably share the same toothbrush. Post-surgery regulations are laid down with a dictatorial authority that the boys find curious. (Stay absolutely quiet when playing. Don’t disturb Mother without knocking. Keep visitors away. Don’t bring animals into the house.) “She’s so different,” Lukas whispers in the darkness after lights out, “She’s not like our mom.” For comparison purposes, the boys play a recording that their Mother had sent them while hospitalized, a message in which she professes her love and sings them a lullaby. The voice’s owner seems to bear little resemblance to the frosty, snappish woman who now occupies their Mother’s bedroom.
The twins’ fears appear not entirely unfounded. At times the Mother’s actions seem more akin to that of a duplicitous interloper than a parent. Yet, in its early sequences, Goodnight Mommy often unnerves for reasons that have little to do with its characters. Fiala and Franz spatter the film with odd little details that create subtle inter-textual reverberations. Wispy allusions to biblical calamity abound, thickening the pall of hovering misfortune: The boys mock-fight with hailstones during a summer thunderstorm, wander past a burning field of wheat straw, and tend hissing cockroaches in a glass vivarium. Indeed, insects seem to be everywhere. The twins’ bedroom wallpaper depicts lines of marching ants, buzzing flies dominate the sound design, and Elias is observed scorching a bug with a magnifying glass. The Mother’s gauze-swathed countenance suggests a gothic monster of old, such as Erik in The Phantom of the Opera or Griffin in The Invisible Man, beings whose masked hideousness hint at their inner darkness.
Impostor fears are a staple of horror cinema, but there remains something distinctly terrifying about the notion of parental replacement. Yet Elias and Lukas are shaky ground. All they have are hushed doubts that their Mother is not who she seems to be; an aggregation of inconsistencies that may or may not add up to a reasonable suspicion. Regardless, the twins face the acute paradox of knowledge coupled with powerlessness. Confined with the maybe-Mother in a house in the remote countryside, who could the boys to turn to for help? If their Mother has been replaced, who has replaced her? And to what end?
The picture is unclear, but perplexing signs seem to multiply. A surreptitious Internet search reveals that the house has been put up for sale. At some point, she quietly removes most of the framed pictures from the walls, leaving only portraits of Elias and Lukas. When the brothers realize this, they fetch a family photo album, which has been similarly redacted. This could be the understandable act of an embittered divorcée, but the twins remain dubious. One particular snapshot catches their eye: their Mother and a mystery woman who looks remarkably like her, the pair dressed in identical outfits.
In the basement, the boys stumble upon the remains of a cat which they had secretly rescued, contrary to the Mother’s command. They immediately assume that she is to blame. This spurs them to the first genuine act of war against their impostor parent. Emptying their vivarium of cockroaches and filling it with alcohol, they place the container on the living room coffee table with the feline corpse floating inside. Unsurprisingly, this triggers a vicious quarrel with the wrathful Mother. The twins finally reveal their hand, openly accusing her of being a fraud and demanding to see her telltale birthmark. As punishment, she slaps and physically seizes one of the boys, commanding him to repeat, like a penitent incantation, “You’re my mom. You’re my mom. You’re my mom.” The cat incident sharpens the divergence in the Mother’s treatment of the twins. Elias is on the receiving end of her screams and smacks, while Lukas is cruelly neglected and forced to listen in anguish. When Elias sniffles, “She wants to tear us apart,” it is difficult to disagree.
Almost all horror relies to some extent on violations—from the personal to the cosmic—but the upheaval of the family seems to possess a particularly toxic potential for eliciting revulsion. Despite (or because of) its appalling real-world normalcy, violent abuse perpetrated by a parent on a child has always been a fertile ground for cinematic terror. Whether Jack Torrence’s ghost-mediated degeneration into bestial axe murderer in The Shining or Amelia’s materialization of her anti-maternal id as a ravenous bogeyman in The Babadook, the seed of abuse typically takes root in individuals who already possess a predisposition to violence. One of Goodnight Mommy’s novelties is its refusal to provide a point of reference prior to the Mother’s hospitalization. Whether the “old Mother” was abusive is never clear. The viewer is obliged to defer to Elias and Lukas’ possibly unreliable assertion that something fundamental has changed in her personality. If, indeed, she is their Mother at all.
By the time the boys begin whittling makeshift weapons and taking guard duty shifts, the evolution of the Mother from a caregiver into an enemy within is complete. The twins later feign acceptance of the Mother’s conciliatory gestures, seizing the opportunity to flee into the woods and seek refuge with a village priest—who swiftly delivers them back into her clutches. Distraught by the boys’ aborted escape, she later swallows a sleeping pill before collapsing into her bed. When she awakens, she finds to her confusion that her hands and feet have been bound to the bed frame with gauze. Standing over her are Elias and Lukas, wearing homemade green goblin masks, the exposed vs. concealed contrast between parent and children now reversed. “Tell us where our mother is,” they demand.
It is at this point that Goodnight Mommy makes a disorienting swerve into seat-squirming “captivity horror,” exemplified by such diverse films such as The Collector, In a Glass Cage, and Hard Candy. This change also corresponds to the film’s abrupt inversion of audience sympathies. Rather than sharing Elias and Lukas’ waxing fear of their pretender parent, the viewer now finds themselves suddenly terrified for the Mother’s safety. Notwithstanding the fiendish will required to tie up the Mother in the first place, the particular acts of torture that the brothers inflict on her underline the puerility of their scheme. Perhaps most appallingly, the twins procure a length of wire from the basement and use it to subject her to a twisted version of their bedtime flossing routine, complete with ticking timer.
The twins who were once the viewer’s surrogates become the sort of unholy children that are ubiquitous in the horror genre. As with the malevolent but otherwise ordinary minors in The Bad Seed, Who Can Kill a Child?, Little Sweetheart, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, there is no supernatural corruption at play. The dreadfulness of the situation emanates from the sheer wrongness of an ordinary child gleefully perpetrating acts of sadism. With the Mother at their mercy, Elias and Lukas are positioned not only to extract the truth, but to enact every petty act of revenge that a resentful child might fantasize about in their sulkiest moments. Such violence doesn’t just offend the traditional family order; it annihilates it with disturbing enthusiasm. Relatively few films have violated the parricidal taboo, and apart from the aforementioned Kevin, most of these entail a paranormal explanation such as toxic chemicals (The Children), demonic temptation (Children of the Corn), or death-born corruption (Pet Sematary).
Throughout the Mother’s imprisonment, it is Elias who evinces flickers of reluctance and Lukas who demands that they show no pity to the impostor. When Elias tacitly accepts the Mother’s explanations for various questions—”Why are your eyes a different color now? Why has your mole disappeared? Who is the doppelgänger woman in the photograph?”—Lukas is livid. “I thought we agreed not to believe her?,” he fumes, sparking a bathroom fist fight that leads to matched bloody noses. When briefly alone with Elias, the Mother swears that all will be forgiven if he simply releases her, promising that he will be rewarded with a hot breakfast and a return to normalcy. Elias wavers, but Lukas reappears and guides him back onto their remorseless path.
What follows in Goodnight Mommy’s final sequences centers on a revelation that radically reconfigures all that has gone before. This narrative twist is like a plunge into freezing water, a reveal that while not entirely unforeseeable, transmutes the film’s terror into one of ineluctable doom. It also highlights Fiala and Franz’ astonishing attention to detail in every preceding shot, not to mention the performers’ impressive ability to straddle the line between authenticity and story-focused restraint. However, Goodnight Mommy’s final revelation also proves largely incidental to its power as a work of horror cinema. The U-turn does little to diminish the uneasy ambiguity that clings stubbornly to the feature even as the closing credits begin to roll. Nagging questions remain, like cockle burrs hitchhiking on woolen socks. Why, if the Mother is indeed the boys’ real mother, does she make no attempt to persuade them with facts that only a parent would know? Why does she seem more focused on her own outrage than establishing her identity, unless she is unable to do so? What exactly has the viewer witnessed by the conclusion of Goodnight Mommy: a malign interloper ferreted out by a pair of canny children, or a mother horribly abused by her own delusional sons?
That Fiala and Franz leave such queries unanswered points to the film’s powerful collateral dread, one that murmurs beneath the frightfulness of parental impostors and the uncanniness of murderous children. It is the awful fear of not knowing for certain whether one has committed an act of cunning survival or supreme evil.