Stories where the monster and the victim are family make up a good chunk of the horror canon: The Shining, The Omen, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, A Tale of Two Sisters. Scarier than a creature bearing down on you from the outside—a ghost, a clawed nightmare-stalker, a masked serial killer—is the thought that the evil is sleeping in a sheer nightgown in the next bedroom over. And so despite the crowded cinematic field, the family at the center of Goodnight Mommy is, if nothing else, unhappy in its own way—a way that involves inhumanly large insects, a formaldehyde-soaked cat, and an inexplicably large pile of bones buried beneath the house.
Creepy props aside, the minimalist Austrian horror film focuses on just three main characters—a woman (Susanne Wuest) who returns home from having facial surgery to her young twin sons Elias and Lukas (played by actors of the same names). But something seems off about her to the boys—she’s more distant, she’s forgetful, she’s sleeping a lot, not to mention she cuts a terrifying figure with her bony frame and a head swathed in bandages. The three move like leashed animals throughout the house, tiptoeing around each other as the boys try to unmask her, both literally and figuratively. The result is a deeply sad, and at times intensely violent, parable about the love between a parent and child—and the horrifying consequences when that love appears to be lost.
Goodnight Mommy’s title—punched up for English-language audiences from its original German name Ich seh Ich seh (or I See I See)—cheapens the film’s highbrow aspirations. (It’s a great watch for those who think modern horror films are all rubbish.) Visually and tonally, it’s quite beautiful, a welcome break from the recycled, low-budget fare that’s recently been dominating the annual scary-movie menu. The story takes place in a gorgeous family home, but in the hands of directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the property’s stylish modernism and blog-worthy decor quickly start to feel oppressive as the house feels more prison-like. Like Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, Franz and Fiala expertly harvest the natural claustrophobia that can crop up even in a physically expansive setting. There are no neighbors for miles—instead, the family’s isolation is fortified by cornfields, a lake, a forest, and, sometimes, locks on the doors.
The film is most unsettling when it exploits the gaps in the audience’s knowledge, gaps that don’t initially seem to exist but that become apparent as the film turns darker. Why did the father leave? What are those mysterious phone calls about? Why does the mother pick on only one of the boys? And why is she stockpiling the basement freezer with a year’s worth of frozen pizza? Ambiguity trumps straight-up answers, lending the film the desired sophisticated vibe but also making it feel a little hollow. (There’s a twist in the third act, but like any good twist, it doesn’t come as a total surprise.)
Goodnight Mommy isn’t all shadowy mystery—it delivers its share of explicit (and nauseating) violence and psychological torture. And some of the film’s most striking, disturbing imagery helped its trailer go viral as, per many outlets, the scariest ever made (quite a feat for a small, subtitled, foreign-language film). Yet the film is most admirable when you look at it as a dramatic, disturbing exploration of the mother-child relationship. All their mother’s little violations and aberrations from normal domestic life read, to the boys, like proof that she’s an impostor. Forgetting the name of one of her son’s favorite songs takes on mythic, tragic significance, and the bandages wrapped around her head seem to disfigure her—but in any other average horror movie, these things would hardly warrant a second glance, let along a gasp.
Tracy Moore noted at Jezebel how the film “doubles as a cautionary tale against modern motherhood, a disturbing metaphor for the way it demands relentless self-sacrifice and maddening consistency at a high price.” But like another recent stand-out foreign horror film, The Babadook, it has quite a bit to say about the child’s side of things. It’s hard not to watch the film and feel a sympathetic sting on the boys’ behalf when they’re banished to their room. Or to share their disbelief when their mom wildly searches their belongings for trash and contraband. Beneath it all is the nagging and heartbreaking feeling that these boys have lost their protector. That vulnerability—combined with their isolation, their confusion—can be harder to stomach than some of the more graphic scenes. For a film that includes, of all things, the most cringe-inducing application of Superglue perhaps ever committed to film, that’s saying something.