Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Goodnight Mommy": Predictability Doesn't Destroy the Tension

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

If a film’s big twist ending fails to deliver, does that automatically negate all the good will that led up to that twist?  That’s what I found myself asking as I watched the final moments of Austrian horror flick Goodnight Mommy.  I had guessed the movie’s big surprise ending within the first five minutes of screen time, and the film never really did a whole lot to disavow that assumption.  But that did not keep me from enjoying the film anyway.  So why is that?

Well, I think it at least partially has to do with the film’s rather novel set-up.  A pair of twins, Elias and Lukas, begin to notice that their mother has been acting strangely ever since her recent car accident.  Her face is bandaged up, her behavior is erratic and decidedly more mean-spirited than they remember, and strangest of all, she only gives Elias any food or acknowledges his presence.  The twins suspect that this woman isn’t really their mother and start to devise a plan to torture the truth out of her.

Now, I’m sure that some of you were able to guess the big twist just from that summary, especially if you are familiar with a few particular major films from around the turn of the century.  The suspicion that the mother is not who she says she is isn’t ever all that convincing, but seeing how she interacts with her children and how they interact with each other is still pretty intriguing, especially considering that their interactions with the outside world are confined to a few specific instances.  This is a slow burner to be sure, and though it has a tendency to drag on for short stretches, Goodnight Mommy seems much more interested in letting us stew over whether our suspicions of the twist ending are correct, rather than trying to shock us with a big reveal.

It’s also pretty subtle when it finally arrives at the child-torturing-parent stuff that acts as the film’s main selling point.  It’s easy to picture an American version of this film resorting to the most gaudy and over-the-top special effects to make its audience feel they’ve got their money’s worth in blood.  However, this Austrian flick is content to let the horror of the situation sit pretty much in reality, without visual extremes beyond piss-stained sheets and only-as-necessary blood.  The biggest impact is psychological, as the twins, particularly Elias, try to come to grips with harming someone they love, or at least someone they believe is impersonating someone they love.  It smacks of a child’s limited grasp of consequence, which makes the film tense not only for the situation itself, but because the twins don’t seem able to stop the train wreck of problems their actions have begun to build up to.

That said, it still feels pretty unsatisfying when the big climactic reveal at the end of the film doesn’t carry the weight it feels like it ought to.  But that shouldn’t discount the feelings the film evokes while getting there.  The twist ending is based upon a what is now a cliché, but the avenue by which it gets there is still disturbingly satisfying to watch, putting a new spin on the creepy child trope of popular horror fiction.  Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a new classic of modern horror among the ilk of It Follows or The Babadook, it still works pretty well for what it is aiming for.  Give this one a look, particularly if you don’t mind subtitles.

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