There’s something about twins that makes our hair stand on end and generally give us the chills, and it’s for that same reason that they have remained staples of the horror genre for ages. There’s something innately unnatural about biological copies, something that may be seated in our confusion in telling them apart, which guarantees the creep factor with mere stares. Goodnight Mommy, or more appropriately Ich Seh Ich Seh (original German title) utilizes this and much more to take us on a psychological ride that unnerves the viewer at every moment. Similar to The Babadook from last year, this is a film that plays games with emotional connections and exploits real human bonds with creative fortitude.
The story takes place in a retreat home secluded from the public, in the middle of the beautiful German countryside. Twin brothers are seen waiting for their mom to come back home after a facial construction surgery for a reason that is not expressly stated. The mother starts behaving very strangely and out of place that it forces the twins into suspicion that the person living with them is not their mother. And so begins a game of cat and mouse where you can never be completely sure of what is happening, and who to believe. That is all I can say about the film without giving anything away, and it is one that deserves to be seen with a fresh mind so that the film can absorb you completely. The trailer for this film was marketed as ‘the scariest movie trailer ever’, an easily overambitious tag which misleads its audience from the real purpose of the film. Using the most minimal dialogue and restricted mostly to the confines of the house, Goodnight Mommy creates a world of utter eeriness and tension that is almost always at the point of boiling over.
What the directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have created here is a puzzle of the very best kind: one which never lets go once it has your attention, something it captures from the start. And like all good puzzles, while it may seem that what lies at the centre is obvious from your past experience with its kind, there is always something waiting beneath the surface to be found. The creators make good use of the mother’s hidden face and the fundamental characteristic of twins to instil confusion and trickery in the minds of its audience at every beat of the story. However, the greatest trick employed by the directors is not a muddling up of faces, but that of bending its plot between reality and the surreal. Goodnight Mommy relies on the ‘unreliable narrator’ and compels its audience to give in to visual suggestions that distort the truth from what it really is. A lot of the story and what we are to make of it lies in what is not shown, like the past of the family and exactly what happened to bring them here. There are questions left unanswered aplenty, but there is also the more pressing sense that the answers are there, and that all we need to do is dig deeper. The filmmakers are toying with our minds and assumptions as much as they are with the central characters of the film, building distrust and uncertainty with every new scene.
Of course, to create something that merely confuses and riddles the viewers takes no genius: why, not only have many careers been created around it but half of Hollywood’s dollars being spent on unnecessary horror remakes like Poltergeist instead of creative designs like this one are enough to make you go ‘huh?’ What powers this Austrian film and puts it out of reach of criticism for its one very predictable reveal is the base of human relationships it plays off of, and the statement on communication that arises as result. In fact, the original title for the film (translating to ‘I see, I see’) points toward this game of watching carefully for the real faces. It is a film that explores the very first bond any human forms – that between the mother and child, and questions what exactly it is that connects the two. It does so by following these twins who find themselves faced with a cold, strict mother, a figure different from what they have known their 10 years and their repeated attempts at testing to see her true nature. What keeps us, the viewers, tightly glued to our seats is how well the balance of perceptions is pulled off. Our sensibility of what the mother means to very young minds is shaken with the intuition that the children have about her by the tiniest of her actions. There is a sense of insecurity built in our minds, as what is tackled here is an invasion of the relationship that is closest to home, and one which holds out as the emotional bedrock for most of us.
Goodnight Mommy is a disturbing experience in the best possible way, displaying close to no sudden noises and adopting instead a haunting stillness. It is a slow-moving film, in that the camera takes on the eyes of a sentient observer that pans around the house – eerie on its own, yet becoming a fourth character with the voyeuristic vision. To make effective the psychological game between mother and children within its walls works so well only because there is no definite answer given, the audience never knows what the monster is to point and scream. Instead, transfixion is what it brings: there seem to be darker things around every corner, every image solving nothing and writing its own nightmares. The craftsmanship of the film is impeccable, moving with an icy touch and relying on an overwhelming sense of tension rather than disjointed scares to creep out the audience. The most exciting moments in horror are those that lead up to the screams and bloodbath, and Goodnight Mommy is almost entirely about those moments. Throughout the film there lurks a secret of something dreadful that is inched toward, with every subdued step taken. It uses negative sound to their benefit, as the camera cuts away to a most creepy image without shifting in tone, laying it out bare for us to respond with even more gaping jaws. It is an experience that unsettles beyond all for it defies closure; a cauldron that keeps dangerously frothing yet never boiling over.
There are many images in Goodnight Mommy that don’t seem like they are going anywhere anytime soon, and I’m glad I have them. If you’ve ever wondered why fans of the genre like to self-impose the creeps, it is purely because of how intriguing the process can be, if creatively designed. By measuring the clues and connecting all to a more primal theme, this design is fruitful to the cause of the brutal guessing game that never loses steam. An experience more than a story, and wrong for all the right reasons, it is visual poetry of the most sinister kind. It is a puzzle that keeps unravelling the more we pull at it, every time rewarding us with some new secret that is sure to change our perspective of the movie as a whole.