I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t believe me when I told you that an Austrian film was one of the best horror movies to come out in a long time. Yes, a little Austrian film simply—and creepily—called Goodnight Mommy (directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz), with only three stars, two of which are children, has the power to get under your skin, crawl around, and stick there for quite some time, as a haunting, Austrian rendition of “Lullaby and Goodnight” beckons you into the atmospheric, paranoia-induced world of Elias and Lukas that subverts many of the elements that we have come to expect from horror films.
The premise is simply—a mother (Susanne Wuest) arrives home to her twin sons (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) after receiving some sort of facial reconstruction surgery, resulting in a nightmarishly creepy mask, something you definitely don’t want to see in the dark—or light for that matter. We know her simply as “Mother,” but the boys begin to wonder if its really her due to some very obvious circumstances. She quickly instills an unruly control over the kids, locking them in their rooms—in a secluded house in the middle of the woods—for hours at a time, slapping them, and blatantly refusing to speak or listen to Lukas (for reasons that are revealed by the end of the movie.)
Elias and Lukas are as close as twins can be. They frolic in the woods, play games, and—most importantly—they have each other’s backs. Their relationship is tested as the mother tries to sway them against each other while they investigate her true identity, but they hold fast in their endeavors as they constantly outsmart someone far older than them. They are some of the most resourceful characters to come out of a horror movie for a long time.
The most important aspect of Goodnight Mommy is not its thrilling, mysterious moments or its earth-shattering twists, but rather its absorbing aura, amplified by its serene, picturesque cinematography—some of the best of the year. It exudes a sense of paranoia, seclusion, helplessness as it pulls you in, making every encounter with Mother a nail-biting experience. It also comes with a sense that there is just something not right in the world, even if it might be completely normal. While this works incredibly in the films favor, it also slows the film to a deliberate, calculated pace. This makes the first half feel sluggish, but its stellar second half makes any sort of impatience worth it once the film completely flips the genre on its head.
With the broodiness of an Ingmar Bergman film, the cinematography of something from Malick, and the twists of a good Shyamalan movie, Goodnight Mommy calls you in for supper and makes you never want to hear “Lullaby and Goodnight” ever again.