Horror comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes the simplest things are those that scare us the most, and every culture has their own approach towards what scares them. Not everything is always as it seems, and the film Goodnight Mommy (Original: Ich Seh, Ich Seh) highlights this approach.
The Austrian film was the country’s hope to get a nomination at the Academy Awards. Yet, while it did not secure the nomination, it did make an intriguing approach on the horror genre. The film tries to enforce the paranoia we live with in our own homes, moving away from classic horror tropes by making us feel unsafe at home. Focusing on the lives of twins and their mother, it makes us question who is the monster, highlighting how change can affect us on an emotional and psychological level. Is the film successful in this attempt, or are horror tropes more difficult to avoid?
Mother May I?
The focus of Goodnight Mommy rests on the twins Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz). Their mother (Susanne Wuest) has returned from a plastic surgery. The film follows the two as they start questioning the person they call “mother”. With her face wrapped up in bandages, they aren’t sure if she is who she says she is. Her behaviour has changed since the operation, so it is difficult for them to be sure. The twins use rather nasty methods and push her to her limits to confirm their suspicions. Over time their paranoia starts ripping the family apart, and it seems that every person involved is losing their mind.
The story is quite simple, but effective. It builds upon childish horrors – my mother does not look like the person I once loved, so she must be someone else. Her behaviour is a bit different, so it further cements my suspicions. It uses a real-live symptom known as the Capgras Delusion, but adds that childish twist. Adults would test people through words and actions. No matter the delusion, there are limits to how far a person will go before they go insane; the issue is that children do not hold that limitation.
These twins are especially interesting in that regard, as they have no limitations on their behaviour. When we see the kids, they wear very plain clothing. They get muddy, collect insects, and behave like children that live in the countryside. The directors Severin Fiala and Veronica Franz used this to create a disparity. How these twins act is very opposed to their living situation, as both live in a very expensive and modern-looking house in the middle of a more traditional city, and the mother seems to have enough money to afford heavy plastic surgery. It adds to the horror, as we would not associate this behaviour with the lifestyle of these twins – but the environment reveals more about these characters.
Come Play With Us!
The twins are great in their role, especially if you consider this their first time acting. Child actors are not the most reliable, so it is quite astonishing to see such a subtle performance. An issue does arise, though, as sometimes the German language does not have the necessary punch it needs, as it is a more monotone language that needs more emphasis in specific moments. It took me out of the film, making it feel a bit disjointed, though it could be that this was on purpose to further emphasise the disparity. This is not a fault to the actors or directors, as it is a rather personal grievance, as I grew up with German as well. If a German-speaking actor is not in their role completely, the language will not mask it in any way.
The true standout in this film is the mother, played by Susanne Wuest. She plays the character very well, even if most of the film we don’t see her face. Her reactions to the horrific things that happen to her are quite genuine. She also plays off of these children in a way that adds to her performance. There is one scene featuring her character that was odd, though. It comes out of nowhere, is never build up, and is nonsensical. While interesting from a visual standpoint, it adds nothing to the film as a whole.
Goodnight Mommy is not perfect, as it has one strong issue almost fighting against it. Throughout the film, we learn and see one thing, but the actual reveal comes very much out of left field. On the one hand, it is well done and forces the viewer to see the film a second time to pick up on the hints. Yet, it almost defeats the purpose of it as well. It in no way makes it a bad film, as it is still incredible in what it does, but it does not add anything additional, and the entire ending feels forced. We spend the entire film focusing on something that needed some kind of resolve, which felt like it was trying to be like a M. Night Shyamalan film, though it really did not need to.
A Tale of Two Twins
Goodnight Mommy explores a rather interesting topic we do not always see approached in cinema. It tried to create a horror that did not rely on a specific villain. Horror is derived from our personal fears and paranoia. The twins do very frightening things to their mother, because if she is not in fact their mother it was worth it. They do not understand boundaries, as if we go by their lifestyle, they never seemed to have them in the first place. The actions by the characters enforces the backstory without saying a single word, though there is one notable exception that I will not spoil here. Wuest‘s character has no name even after the credits role.
It is a rather fascinating approach at horror. There are some small tropes that find their way in, which will always tend to happen in some shape or form. Still, what is attempted and done is quite effective. Questioning if your loved one is who they say they are is a rather terrifying thought. Forcing us to see how far someone will go to make sure about it, adds to that very horror. While the ending is a bit forced, it still is an intriguing story.
Goodnight Mommy is a great recommendation for any horror fan. As an Austrian film it does not add anything to that particular culture, but it does elevate a more personal view on horror: sometimes the scariest things are hiding in our own homes.
What did you think of Goodnight Mommy? Let us know your thoughts!
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.
Joseph is an Austro-American media and communications student currently living in Austria, who grew up with film most of his life. Having won a new appreciation of cinema as an art form and as an industry, he aims to learn as much about it as he can.