An unloving mother is a scary proposition, as is a malevolent child. Reaping horror thrills from these notions, the Austrian import “Goodnight Mommy” is a stylishly creepy, courageously grisly genre picture. But as a psycho-chiller, it lacks depth and substance.
Writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala combine the elegant and the visceral in this dramatic feature debut, whose plot involves a home invasion in which the perpetrators live in the house. It also contains evil-child, mad-mom and pathological-twin ingredients. All wholesomeness ends with the opening clip of a singing von Trapp-like family.
Nine-year-old identical twins Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) live in the Austrian countryside. During a hide-and-seek game played in a cornfield, one wears a sinister-looking mask. The eeriness intensifies when we enter the super-sleek house they share with their mother (Susanne Wuest), a TV personality.
Mom has had plastic surgery for either cosmetic or reconstructive reasons (Franz and Fiala, who like mystery, hint at both possibilities). With her currently bandaged face, she resembles a mummy.
Spookier still is the change in her personality. Previously affectionate, she has become severe and strange. She rejects Lukas outright, and forbids the boys from making noise indoors. She doesn‘t recognize herself as “Mama” during a who-am-I? game, She has purged all evidence of the existence of the boys’ father from family scrapbooks.
Believing that this woman is an imposter, the twins decide they must force her to reveal what has happened to their real mom. Torture and a big twist occur.
The idea that mothers can deny love and warmth to their children and that kids can be innately nefarious will always be conducive to the horror format. Like fellow Austrian Michael Haneke, Franz and Fiala display an effective aversion to sentimentality. And while some will despise their story’s grim turns, the filmmakers deliver the requisite shocks and weirdness.
They’re also good with atmosphere. The sound design creates disquieting undertones. The steely-cold home interior causes goosebumps. A bloodshot eye nearly steals the show.
At the same time, the film doesn’t sink in deeply or disturb one’s comfort zones the way a horror film of this sort should. (To compare, consider the mother-son knockout “The Babadook.”)
The numerous ingredients tossed in from the horror cookbook — jumbo cockroaches, religious symbols, an ossuary, a dead cat — often come at the expense of richer storytelling.
Because the primary characters haven’t been developed beyond the surface, we can’t feel seriously involved in their fate.
As for the twist, many will see it coming, largely because we’ve seen such stuff before. Either way, it is efficiently presented, as is most of this movie, though Franz and Fiala seem capable of delivering much more.
Two and a half stars
Starring Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz
Written and directed by Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Running time 1 hour, 39 minutes