Goodnight Mommy (2014) is an Austrian arthouse horror movie that lingers in the mind for more reasons than one. Identical nine-year-old twins Elias and Lukas (played by the extraordinary identical twin Schwarz brothers) live in a superb designer house – all timber, glass, marble and Venetian blinds – between a lake, a wood and a field of tall, swaying maize. Their mother returns from an operation (accident? cosmetic surgery?), her head swathed in bandages. As they pick up their life together – there is no mention of a father – the boys begin to suspect that the woman behind the bandages is an imposter.
This is a directorial debut for Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala and has echoes of Haneke’s Funny Games, The Sixth Sense, A History of Violence, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, The Village of the Damned and even the 2007 Danish film The Substitute – at least, all of these came to mind. While you may guess the film’s enigma early on, as I did, this movie keeps you in its thrall all along the way, with an exquisitely eerie atmosphere inside the bourgeois dream house and outside – in the forest of maize plants, or beside the lake, or on a night of torrential rain.
The mother, with her quick spasmodic glances and movements and the dreamy circling of the wide-eyed boys – rarely leaving each other’s sides – creates the sense of a dangerous private world that brooks no intrusion. There is no scary music. There are no cheap surprise tactics. The scenes of extreme violence are enacted with cold, surgical precision. The creepiness emanates above all from the quiet collusion between the two boys and the bewitching cinematography that sucks one into the cryptic realm of childhood. In common with other masterpieces of horror, such as The Exorcist, it achieves its effects through measured counterpoint with episodes of intense serenity.