This Austrian horror is stylish and well-crafted - but only hardcore horror fans will enjoy the sadistic final act
The queasy Austrian horror filmGoodnight Mommy begins with a brief clip from The Trapp Family – a pre-Sound of Music German adaptation of Maria von Trapp’s memoir, with her seven charges singing her a spooky lullaby. It doesn’t so much instil a false sense of security as an entirely accurate one of imminent dread.
For the duration of the film, we’re intruding on a dubious idyll between a mother (Susanne Wuest) swaddled in facial bandages after cosmetic surgery, and her twin boys, Lukas and Elias, played by real-life blond identical twins Lukas and Elias Schwartz.
Wuest’s character, a minor TV celebrity, appears to have co-hosted a Wheel of Fortune-style game show, and now owns a lakeside retreat whose every nook and cranny we come to know fairly well over the ensuing hour and a half.
The building has a touch of Frank Lloyd Wright, if Wright had developed an unhealthy obsession with Venetian blinds, and got his interiors decorated with plush but perverse expense, adopting the mildewy grey palette of the faux-Gothic illustrator Edward Gorey.
At one point Lukas and Elias – who are largely left to their own devices, and begin to wage a sadistic war of wits against their mother – find a diseased cat languishing on top of human skulls in a nearby cave. As you do. Smuggled back into their own lair and hidden under the bunk bed, this moggy expires and you barely notice the difference.
When the boys empty out their tank full of writhing cockroaches (!), put the cat’s corpse inside with formaldehyde up to the brim, and plonk it in the living room, it fits right in.
This and other pranks against mommy, whose erratic behaviour (she only addresses Elias directly) and high-strung attempts at discipline fill the twins with brewing mutinous ideas, are promisingly twisted and funny. When they play the name-on-the-forehead game and she gets “Mama”, but fails in growing exasperation to guess her own identity, directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz are hitting bass notes of subtext with the splashy emphasis of a Rachmaninov Prelude. It’s not exactly subtle.
But their film is so immaculately crafted, with wizardly cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (Revanche) playing great games of his own with silhouettes and those blinds, that you go along with its charades, at least until they take a turn for cinema-of-cruelty heading somewhere towards the general vicinity of unwatchable.
Cat-and-mouse is one thing; but a distraught mother prone and tied to a bed while her children initiate various forms of torture becomes a slightly more divisive proposition, and one to which only diehard horror fans may find themselves willingly subscribing. The suggestive, woozy atmosphere of the film’s early going heads into static lockdown, and internal plausibility suffers – wouldn’t supergluing someone’s lips together take a little longer?
It’s disappointing, too, that the major twist offered up is exactly the one you’d expect from this premise in outline. Still, for the ghoulish delectation of its first hour – and the hilarious sequence where two bucket-jiggling Red Cross collectors pop in unannounced and look confused – this is guardedly recommended.