There are a variety of formulas to follow to get an audience to jump out of their seats or cover their eyes with sweaty palms. Scary movies have long employed jump scares, relied on eerie scores or used gratuitous violence to turn up the fear factor. But Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have instead found the horror in both the familiar and the unknown to create one of the most chilling movies of the year in "Goodnight Mommy" ("Ich Seh, Ich Seh").
The film finds 9-year-old twin brothers living in a secluded modern home in the Austrian countryside. Their mother (Susanne Wuest), or a woman purporting to be, returns home with a bandage-wrapped face after cosmetic surgery, recalling the likes of "Eyes Without a Face" and "The Skin I Live In." The supposed mother begins acting in ways that make the boys, Lukas and Elias, question the identity of who might actually lie behind all the gauze.
What follows is a nightmarish psychological thriller that accelerates to a violent torture fest of terrifying and shocking proportions. But before any onscreen violence occurs, "Goodnight Mommy" builds tension with unnerving imagery that, while familiar, becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch. Moments of everyday activities as simple as the boys flossing their teeth or the mother slowly crunching away at day-old bread add more to the growing anxiety of the film's atmosphere than any premonition of actual evil or fantasy.
"We feel that horror films are a lot scarier if they come from reality," co-writer and co-director Fiala told The Huffington Post, before adding that "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is still the scariest movie he's seen. "The Shining" and David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers" were two other classics name-dropped by the directors while discussing their film.
"Goodnight Mommy" also makes allusions to famous twists of other horror films and thrillers (which we won't name so as not to spoil the plot). Even so, the film is an original gem that will stay with you long after you watch, much to the discontent of your dreams for the next several nights. "We like to play games," Fiala said. "We like films that challenge you as a viewer, that maybe also attack you, make you feel uncomfortable."
The film, which is Austria's selection for Best Foreign Film at next year's Oscars, succeeds at that, so much so that during a press screening it incited audible gasps from a theater full of critics, with one exclaiming, "This is crazy!"during the intense third act. The horror film is one of the most startling in years (in close competition for the top spot with "It Follows"). But while the ending may be one of the most terrifying on-screen moments, the film also isn't solely contingent upon the reveal of the final twist, which isn't hard to guess early on. Some viewers already told the filmmakers they knew the twist from the film's first frame. "I don’t think that’s a bad sign," Fiala told HuffPost, before Franz added, "It was not about only how it’s going to end."
In fact, the ending isn't as clear-cut as some may assume it to be. "My mother who saw it three times now still doesn’t know [the twist]," Franz said, laughing. While the film seems to resolve one of the puzzling mysteries by the end, it leaves much up to interpretation. "I think it’s open," Fiala said. "We have an ending in mind. But everyone sees his own film anyway." Perhaps that's the biggest strength of "Goodnight Mommy," which is sure to be a cult hit that you'll want to revisit to put the pieces together. That is, if you can stomach the horror a second time around.
"Goodnight Mommy" opens in limited release on Sept. 11.
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