Review: 'Goodnight Mommy' [Fantasia Festival 2015]

You want real scares, you turn to a nice, slow-building horror film, the kind that gets in your head and under your skin and makes you pause for a split second before turning off the lights before bed. Masochist.

You want to laugh, or squirm, you pick out something good and bloody – a slasher, or maybe some good new-fashioned torture porn. Weirdo.

For all the damaged folks with a foot in both camps, who want to be grossed out and creeped out in a single sitting, it takes a film with that special something that lets it deliver all the goods. Goodnight Mommy is a shining example of just that.

Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, who also handled scripting duties, do a tremendous job with this film, forcing us into the same atmosphere of isolation in which we find twin brothers Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz) trapped.

Their mother has just returned home after undergoing facial surgery, and begins acting strangely. She gets violent, and tries to keep her sons separated. Eventually, the boys begin to suspect that this woman who came to them from the hospital is not their mother at all. Who is really hiding behind those bandages?

From that point, we’re treated to a slow, deliberate unfolding of a story that is careful to reveal just enough, always just enough, to keep us on our toes and fearful of fresh cruelties to come. Better yet, the final revelations, while shocking, are with even short reflection not a surprise. The seeds are planted well in advance, and never once do we feel cheated by what we learn. Credit to the creative team for that.

The nature of this story necessitates an amount of isolation, including from characters other than our three leads. It puts a lot of pressure on them, but the acting on display by Elias, Lukas, and their mother (Susanne Wuest) is great, and makes great use of the relative lack of company.

The children in particular do a fine job, handling a variety of emotion with apparent ease. Together with Wuest, they enter into a believable-enough struggle for control that goes to dark, dark places. We witness moments of cruelty that would not look out of place in the Saw series, but mixed with the tight, controlled atmosphere and fine acting, the conflict serves less as a vehicle for gross-out moments and more as a tool to create real fear. These are, after all, meant to be regular people.

The lone downside is that there are occasional detours into what can only be described as “artsy” moments, and they don’t all make perfect sense, or add anything that can be fully justified later on in the film. It’s hardly a major fault – if nothing else, the little misdirection they result in serves to enhance the unsettling turns that lead us to the end of the film – but it would be nice to see a little more coherence to the film’s logic.

On the whole, this film succeeds at much more than it fails, and throws different horror conventions together not into a slapdash mix, but something that takes full advantage of its mixed heritage to instill fear in the audience. It’s the kind of film you can’t quite shake, that will come to you when you’re alone at night with its not-so-gentle reminder that nobody is fully safe anywhere.

What better effect for a horror film to have?