Welcome to the third installment of A Crash Course in Horror, a weekly horror movie review from the perspective of a horror movie newbie. Every Saturday I review another horror movie — whether it’s a classic or new film, if I’m told they’re worth seeing, I’ll watch them all!
I really wanted to find an opportunity to watch a horror movie in the theatre. It’s not quite the same experience when you’re in the comfort of your own home, even if you’re sitting in a dark room with distractions put away. Emotions get even more intense when you’re in a crowded theatre, and I had to see how that influenced the spooky factor.
There were two options in my local theatres this week, and those options were Crimson Peak, which appealed to my Tom Hiddleston fangirl sensibilities, and Goodnight, Mommy, which was well reviewed and supposed to be really, really scary.
“Don’t be a wimp, Noémi. Pick the scariest movie.” I thought to myself, as I chose to go to the latter.
I MADE A HORRIBLE MISTAKE.
Goodnight, Mommy (AKA Ich Seh Ich Seh — or “I see, I see”) is an Austrian film about a pair of twins whose mother returns from the hospital after undergoing plastic surgery. Their mother’s bandaged face is as disturbing to the boys as the apparent change in her behavior. She’s impatient, demands the blinds be closed and the boys play in silence all day. The boys start to get suspicious that something has happened to the mother — and the woman who came home may be an impostor.
I’m going to be honest, that plot summary covers a grand portion of the action of the film, so there’s not a lot more that I can summarize without massive spoilers, and because this film is still very new (it came out in September) I don’t think that’s fair to do. It’s such a simple story that you might be able to guess some plot details if you read the review, but I won’t be explicit about any details.
You’d think that by saying that very little happens for the first half of this film, I was telling you that it was boring. Actually, I think the front half of this movie is the best part of it. We’re introduced to twins Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) by watching them run around and play in the woods by their new home. It’s filmed in a beautiful idyllic countryside setting, and everything is bright and happy. Frankly, it looks like an amazing house to grow up in.
The film continues on in that way. Even when their mother (Susanne Wuest) comes home, they play games with her and seem to be happy. This feeling slowly erodes as strange things start happening, one after another, each more extreme than the last. These events occur with a magnificent sense of pacing, letting you relax before you’re delivered another reminder that things are not right in this house. Finally, it culminates in what I will for lack of a better word term an action scene which lasts for the entire final third of the film.
This movie is rated R for “disturbing violence and some nudity”, and I had not given the ‘disturbing violence’ statement nearly enough credit. None of the spoiler-free reviews warned me about the content of this film, so in the interest of saving squeamish people the trouble of watching something they won’t like, let’s be clear: WHEN THE RATING BOARD SAYS “DISTURBING VIOLENCE”, THEY MEAN IT. There were a couple of moments during the last third of this film that had the entire audience in the theatre groaning in disgust. If you’re a person who doesn’t like extreme violence in your horror movies, let’s be very, very clear: THIS IS NOT FOR YOU, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU, THIS IS NOT. FOR. YOU.
Apparently it also wasn’t for ME, because while I had really enjoyed the film so far, the scenes of violence were way too much for me. It also completely killed the horror factor, because the violence was already so upsetting it was beyond my imagination, which left me nothing to be afraid of. What I had feared was already on screen.
While this killed my enjoyment of the movie, the ability to tolerate violence is a matter of personal taste. I found the violence gratuitous and unnecessary, but others I’ve spoken to about the movie found it compelling and felt that it added to their experience of the film. I don’t understand these people, but I’ll discuss its merits and flaws outside of that particular problem, and you can decide for yourself whether seeing really, really terrible things happen to people is your idea of a good time.
I may not care much for their script, but writers/directors of the film Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala definitely have an eye for filmmaking. Goodnight, Mommy is beautifully shot and directed. I’m starting to think all the best cameramen go into horror. The blocking in every scene is really interesting — all the sets are very stark and empty, making the characters the full focus of every shot.
The pacing of the script and the escalation of the sense of horror is well done. The fact that the entire film has basically no score or soundtrack to lean on really helps make the quiet, subtle first half feel kind of claustrophobic. It also makes the nightmare final third of the film even more horrific.
The actors all do a good job. Other than a couple of scenes, the only three characters in the film are Elias, Lukas, and Mother. I am judgmental of child actors, so when I say that Elias and Lukas are pretty good, I am actually giving them a huge compliment. Especially when I consider the material these kids were given to portray. Their mother gives an even better performance, swaying between loving mother and disturbing authority figure perfectly.
Where Goodnight, Mommy fails is in its twist. If you don’t realize within 30 minutes what the final reveal of this film will be, you probably aren’t paying full attention. It is telegraphed way too loudly and is too vital to the emotional payoff of the film to be revealed so early. I saw the film with a horror movie veteran who had it figured out within 5 minutes because it played so closely to the existing tropes. It was quite disappointing when the twist was revealed and the movie seemed so proud of itself.
Its characters also behave like idiots for reasons that can only be justified as excuses to keep the twist hidden. Characters fail to say things that would be sensible to say, and don’t react to the very strange things going on around them. Even when the actors are giving their best performances, these weird reactions (or lack thereof) seem completely unreasonable. It’s enough to make the whole experience feel frustrating.
This movie had the potential to be scary and then chose to be violent and disturbing instead. While I might be able to get past that if the emotional payoff of the film was worth it, the weird writing choices and sad attempt at a twist made it unacceptable in my mind. I can’t say that this film is outright bad, but if it disappears into the fog of horror movie history, I don’t think anybody should be disappointed.
Which is a shame, because its trailer is really something special.
Remember to check back every Saturday for the next Crash Course in Horror review — and if you have a favorite horror film you want to see reviewed next, comment below or tweet at me: @NoemiPOM! Next week I’ll be reviewing a horror film that inspired a generation of directors — Psycho.