Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.
I remember seeing the trailer for Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh, Ich Seh in the original German). I was on vacation with my family in North Carolina, still having to do a little work, and it popped up somewhere on social media. The trailer makes it look like the greatest horror movie ever created. Trailers have that power, of course, and once again, what I got was substantially less than the trailer seemed to offer. Don’t take that as my saying that Goodnight Mommy isn’t worth a look. It is, but it’s not the second coming of horror film.
A woman (Susanne Wuest) returns to her isolated home after cosmetic surgery, her face completely bandaged. At home are her twin sons, Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz). Immediately, things are strange. The woman only seems to interact with Elias, telling them that they know why she won’t talk to Lukas. She is also extremely angry about things, losing her temper quickly. Additionally, she demands that the house be kept quiet with the blinds drawn while she recuperates.
Over time Lukas and Elias decide that the woman who has returned to their home is not really their mother, but an imposter who has had cosmetic surgery to look like their mother. Eventually, the bandages come off, and while she looks the same, they notice subtle differences. They also discover a photograph of their mother with another woman who looks suspiciously like her; they are even dressed the same. While she continues to recuperate, the boys plot ways to figure out how they can discover what has actually happened to their mother.
That really is it in terms of the plot for Goodnight Mommy. Aside from a couple of Red Cross workers who come to the door at one point looking for a donation, the woman and the two boys are the only real characters in the film, and the entire story revolves around her claim that she is actually their mother and their insistence that she is not. The final half hour of the film is particularly grueling, including some torture-like sequences that are both surprisingly inventive and difficult to watch.
Goodnight Mommy rests entirely on a twist that comes near the end, and it’s unfortunate that the twist isn’t that hard to figure out. Twenty years ago, this would have been a stunning move in a film, but today, the twist seems like the sort of thing one expected to see coming. Too many other movies have used a similar device (I won’t spoil this by naming them. I’ll only say that horror isn’t the only genre where this basic twist has appeared). With that shock easily figured out, it’s hard to work up a great deal of enthusiasm for the build up to that twist point.
A perhaps larger issue is the problem I have with many horror movies. For me, horror works best when I can clearly identify with one or more of the characters. Horror is a personal thing in many ways, and the best horror movies connect us to the people on screen in a primal way. Here, there is very little connection. The woman spends the first half of the movie covered in bandages, and then seems to be magically healed toward the middle of the film (with no real indication of how much time has passed). There isn’t a great deal of dialogue in the film, either. Many of the conversations seem to be various iterations of “Where is our mother,” followed by, “I am your mother.” The two boys, who should be the natural point of sympathy here, are bizarre in the extreme. They keep a massive aquarium of giant cockroaches as pets, and when the family cat dies, they remove their cockroaches, fill the tank with water, and put the cat in it. It’s hard to feel emotionally close to something that screams of a shared psychosis.
Goodnight Mommy should be about the build of tension and the increase of distrust that the boys have in their mother. But, since the twist isn’t that difficult to parse out in the first half hour or so of the film, that build of tension ends up not really being there; instead, we’re just waiting around for the reveal so that we can get to the ending.
It is a well-made film. With a better crafted screenplay that kept things a little more concealed, I would have very little negative to say about the film. The long and short of it is that Goodnight Mommy is well-made, but a touch on the amateur side in that respect. It’s like watching a very good magician, but being in just the right place in the audience to see how the tricks are done. The level of skill and practice involved is impressive, but the mystery is gone. That’s a shame.
Why to watch Goodnight Mommy: The premise is so cool.
Why not to watch: So little is done with that premise.