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Goodnight Mommy

Original title: Ich seh ich seh

D: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala / 100m

Cast: Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest, Hans Escher, Elfriede Schatz, Karl Purker

At an isolated lakeside property surrounded by woods and cornfields, two nine year old boys, twins, play freely while they await the return of their mother who has been in hospital following an accident. When she returns home they are dismayed to find she has had facial reconstructive surgery, and her features are hidden under a swathe of bandages. Her mood and attitude have changed and she’s no longer the kind-hearted mother they remember. She insists on imposing some strict house rules in order to aid her recovery, and because of a perceived slight, refuses to acknowledge the presence of one of the boys, Lukas.

Lukas and his brother, Elias, begin to feel uneasy around their mother, and soon they’ve convinced themselves that the woman who has come home from the hospital isn’t their mother at all but an imposter. When they rescue a cat and bring him home, it’s not long before they find him dead in the basement. Convinced their “mother” is responsible they begin to form a plan of resistance. As they ignore her wishes and behave inappropriately around her, she becomes less and less tolerant, to the point of locking them in their room. The boys challenge her more and more, even telling her they want their mother back. This leads to increased tension in the house, tension that is relieved for a short period when their “mother” is able to remove her bandages and she looks like her old self.

By now though, Elias and Lukas have convinced themselves completely that she is an imposter, and they take steps to prove their theory. When she wakes one morning she finds herself tied to her bed and her two sons determined to learn the truth – whatever the cost.

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Goodnight Mommy begins in a cornfield, with Lukas and Elias playing hide and seek amongst the rows. It’s the epitome of a carefree, spirited childhood, as we follow the two boys on their adventures and explorations of the local countryside. It’s almost idyllic, beautifully shot (on glorious 35mm) by DoP Martin Gschlacht, and with only a shot of the two boys disappearing into a disused tunnel to give any indication that their childhood is anything but unspoiled and bucolic. When they return to their brightly lit, glass-fronted home with its open-plan spaces and minimalist furniture, it seems as if the house is, for them, an extension of the world they play in outside. Excited to see their mother again, they rush to her bedroom, and in the moment it takes to acknowledge her appearance, their picturesque existence comes to an end.

What follows is less about innocence lost as innocence corrupted from within, as Elias and Lukas take increasingly disturbing steps in their quest to find the truth about their mother’s identity. With no one to correct them – their father and mother have separated as a result of the accident – and with their imaginations becoming ever more fervid and distressing, the twins create their own cauldron of oppression. When they take matters too far, and their methods in finding the truth become too harrowing, their dispassionate features and lack of compassion become even more frightening than the idea that their mother really is some kind of evil döppelganger.

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The movie toys with this idea, that there’s a matriarchal cuckoo in the nest, for quite some time, with the mother behaving oddly while her sons are out of sight and earshot, and thanks to some cleverly inserted dream sequences that are played out in the boys’ own psyches (one such sequence, involving a cockroach, will have some viewers wishing they were watching something altogether more wholesome). As the movie pulls the audience firmly in this direction, and litters the narrative with clues that something truly isn’t right with the mother, it distracts cleverly and persuasively from the real horror: that something truly isn’t right with the children.

By the time viewers work this out – and some may do so quite early on – it’s far too late, and the movie has sunk its claws in and won’t let go. Thanks to two superb performances from real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz, the blandness of their appearance, and their downplayed facial expressions hide a growing menace that sits like a suffocating cloak around their shoulders. As they carry out newer and more emasculating “procedures” on their “mother”, the movie attains a level of intensity that proves hard to watch, and where the drama so far has been patiently heightened and maintained, it now becomes the kind of horror movie where to look away is no guarantee of relief. One mealtime sequence becomes so excruciating to watch, thanks to the children’s lack of foresight, that their casual, matter-of-fact response is even more horrifying.

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Matching the Schwarzes in the acting stakes is Wuest, whether she’s looking grim and monstrous behind her bandages, or later when she’s restored to her former good looks. When further doubt to her identity is added to the mix late on, Wuest still manages to tread the line of providing clarity while also maintaining the uncertainty of her character’s true nature. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that she pulls off with aplomb. All three are helped immeasurably by the writing-directing team of Franz and Fiala. Their script, and the confident way in which they’ve developed it visually, is refreshingly spare, and yet it’s also possessed of a depth in terms of the characterisations and the psycho drama being enacted on screen that elevates the material to unexpected heights.

The movie is also paced to perfection, with scenes allowed to play out for maximum effect, and to enhance the sense of impending doom that permeates the narrative with every inevitable development. Franz and Fiala have worked hard to create a private world for the story to take place in, and interior worlds for the boys that feed off of and sustain that original private world. It all adds up to one of the most original and nerve-racking horror movies of recent years.

Rating: 9/10 – anchored by a trio of superb performances, and a script that doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of imaginations left unchecked, Goodnight Mommy has a clammy, skin-crawling effect that’s hard to shake off; with striking imagery and a tremendous sound design to add to the movie’s sense of mounting terror, this is satisfying in ways you really shouldn’t want it to be.