In a lonesome house in the countryside in the heat of midsummer, nine year-old twin brothers await their mother’s return from the hospital. When she comes home with her face obscured by bandages, nothing is like before and the children start to doubt whether this woman is actually who she says she is. (From RADiUS’ official synopsis)
Writer/director team Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala’s dramatic/fictional feature debut Goodnight Mommy (2015) considers the psychological themes of past evil kid movies, specifically the whole biological imperative thing. Franz & Fiala set their film apart by limiting the size of their cast and telling the story from the point-of-view of the ‘evil’ kids themselves, rather than the adult they are menacing. And, unlike Sean MacGregor/David Sheldon’s Devil Times Five (1974) or Ed Hunt’s Bloody Birthday (1981), we’re forced to identify with the little monsters. In doing this, Franz & Fiala also pull from the fairytale tropes. ‘The Mother’ (we never learn her name) is a bit terse and cold, but her actions aren’t particularly villainous; yet, because her rules and regulations are being framed by the boys’ experience, she ends up embodying a wicked stepmother stereotype. Even though the adults in the audience likely assume that The Mother is just cranky due of her surgery and other issues that would constitute spoilers (not to downplay the fact that she is abusive and deals poorly with just about every situation), the information we are given frames all of her actions as suspicious and cruel. Even when she does really weird shit, like wander into the forest nude, it’s usually clear that these are images from the boys’ overactive imaginations. And, ultimately, that’s what Goodnight Mommy is about – the dangers of not explaining emotionally difficult situations to the children that depend on you for emotional stability. This makes it a companion piece to Jennifer Kent’s Babadook (2014), where a mother’s refusal to deal with bereavement nearly turns her into a literal monster.
Before Goodnight Mommy, the directing duo made a 2012 documentary entitled Kern. This factoid lead me to expect a more gritty, handheld movie, but what I got was the complete opposite. The camera movement is minimalistic in the extreme and the compositions are precise to the point that the images feel uncanny. What this documentary preparation does do for the film is allow scenes to play out very naturally, despite the very ‘scripted’ imagery. This naturalism helps normalize the behavior of the young stars, Elias and Lukas Schwarz, and makes it a bit easier to accept their latter actions. The more strictly ‘horrific’ or at least gross moments are sometimes inadvertently silly, especially in the face of a number of successfully spooky images that don’t serve a specific scare. So much of the quality of Goodnight Mommy is found in its tone and themes that I actually find myself regretting Franz & Fiala’s need to turn it into a shock machine, specifically the torture-centric final act. The slow descent into darkness is palpable enough to make my skin crawl and, even though the cockroach and superglue stuff is certainly shocking, I’m not sure the movie really needs it. The impact of the childlike cruelty would probably be more powerful without the reminders that we’re watching a horror movie.
Vague spoiler: There is also a twist at the end of the movie that doesn’t betray the themes or basic plot, but it is entirely unnecessary in the way that so many third act horror movie twists are unnecessary.
Goodnight Mommy was shot on 35mm film and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p HD video. The directors and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht actually shoot the film under the kind of soft lights that most modern filmmakers would use for a digital HD feature. The presence of film-based artefacts, such as fine grain and slightly rough gradations, becomes uniquely eerie and subtly off-putting. Large swaths of the film are also quite dark, which pumps up the grain and sometimes leads to something that looks like compression noise. Indoor sequences, most of which are shot with minimal lighting, are soft as well, something that is magnified by shallow focus. Though this can lead to posterization, the fact that vague shapes of these largely grey and blue elements can be discerned is a credit to the transfer’s overall clarity. In contrast, the outdoor daylight sequences are vibrant with lush greens and warm yellows. These feature more complex textures and sharper details, minus the slight haloes seen in the interior scenes. Some of the black levels are a bit weak, but not inordinately so.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very expressive. While valuing the power of silence, the sound designers rarely leave the channels completely empty. The most impressive moments are the select outdoor sequences, where chirping bugs, lapping waves, thunder, and tumbling hail clang and clatter throughout the stereo and surround speakers. Dynamic range is keyed high enough to make everyday noises crackle and pop against the silence. Dialogue is clear and consistent. Olga Neuwirth’s evocative and thoroughly spooky ambient score offers a bit more stereo movement and gives the LFE a nice throb.
The only extra is a conversation with the filmmakers (12:50, HD), where they discuss their characters, themes, inspirations, and the challenges of filming children.
The images on this page are NOT representative of the Blu-ray image quality.