Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Goodnight Mommy (2015) - Movie Review

I’ve brought up the horror rule of what we don’t see is always scarier before, but I haven’t really delved into why it works as well as it does. As much as Hollywood may provide evidence to the contrary, everyone in the human race has an overactive imagination; add to that the unfortunately ingrained fear we have of anything that is unknown or different and you have a person already primed for overthinking. Time for a little thought experiment: Grab Johnny Everyman and throw him into a small room. Tell him that there is someone on the other side of the door and that it is locked. Leave the room and watch the magic begin. As time passes, the possibilities go through his mind: Is it a friend or a foe? Is it someone he knows or is it a complete stranger? Is the door locked to keep the other person out, or is it meant to keep Johnny inside? What would happen if he opened the door? What would happen if he didn’t? Long story short, there’s a reason why ambiguous endings are still being used in films today: We think a lot more about things that are left up to interpretation. With this main idea about uncertainty and what is done in response to it, let’s look at today’s Austrian-born subject… and no, it doesn’t involve getting to da choppa.

The plot: After their mother (Susanne Wuest) comes home from getting cosmetic surgery done on her face, her twin sons Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) begin to notice that she is acting a little differently that she did before; meaner and colder. As time goes on, they begin to find evidence to suggest that this woman who has come to their home might not be their mother. Question is, how are they doing to find out?

The atmosphere is quite possibly the tensest of any film I’ve seen this year, particularly in terms of its sound. There’s a lot of grinding, crunching and thudding to be had, all of which lands with a very hefty impact on the audience’s ears, but in a good way. Probably the creepiest moment with that in mind is when the twins delve into a small cavern where they find a cat, with every single footstep sending an equal chill down the spine thanks to the sound and the realisation of what they are walking on. Speaking of which, another cool yet mysteriously unnerving scene comes right at the start as the twins walk on rocks that ripple the ground. It gives chills because of just how bizarre and unnatural it looks. Outside of its sound environment, the actors all give an air that something is definitely askew in their house, which is so sterile as to infect the mind with that impression even further.

What makes this hit even harder is that, for the most part, it’s not entirely clear who is in the right. The mother is acting suspicious and does come across like she’s hiding something, but on the other hand the twins are a little quick to jump to conclusions and don’t act all that rationally either. For the first act, the effectiveness of every drawn-out scene comes from the uncertainty of it all from the children’s point of view. At that age, when something drastically changes about someone that close to you, you aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with it. As such, that need for answers can let that young mind astray, especially if there’s reasonable doubt. Then the second act comes along… holy hell, make sure you have a change of pants nearby. What was before very psychological takes on a more visceral tone, resulting in the kind of dread that has unfortunately lead to the naming (and shaming) of certain horror films as “torture porn”. However, rather than it just being the fact that the torture is happening, and being done very well both in terms of how much is actually shown as well as the effects themselves, it cuts deeper because that air of ambiguity is still being pumped into every frame of this film. Yeah, what gets done with Super Glue is quite disturbing, but we still don’t know by the time it’s being used whose side we should be on, if any.

The acting is damn good, with both Wuest and the Schwarz twins keeping the audience guessing as to what exactly is going on. Wuest, through the minimal exposition we do get about her at the start, plays the subtle tragedy of her faded stardom well and the twins show that sense of youthful curiosity and naivety in ways that reach new levels of kid creepy. Beyond them, and the voiceless extras, the only other characters are the two collectors for the Red Cross. It is here that we reach the big problem with the film. Sure, the slow pace can get a little too slow at times, but these two characters are all kinds of pointless to the overall narrative. Not only does their involvement in the main plot make no sense (unless charity collectors just go into houses when apparently no-one is home in Austria), their contribution to said plot is minimal at best aside from giving some mild suspense about what is going in the house being found out. Said suspense is perfectly fine, but not worth adding a needless cliché into the mix.

The best horror films that work on psychological scares are at their best when they are actively making the audience question the film’s reality. For instance, back in Oculus, it was from wondering exactly how much of what was being shown was actually happening. Here, it comes from whose reality should be questioned and how much of it. Hell, I’d even recommend watching this more than once because this is one of those films where past events definitely make more sense on repeat viewings… for the most part. This is the double-edged sword when it comes to the trippier horror flicks out there, where re-watching also runs the risk of making less sense, considering there are a few plot details that don’t add up once the ending comes around. Sure, for the first run-through, it is satisfying and armchair-clutching, but then other things sink in and it begins to unravel.

All in all, if you want some genuine chills that don't involve far-too-frequent jump scares and gratingly annoying characters, look no further. This film pretty much embodies the golden rule of the unseen, as pretty much everything here is rooted in that guideline and, as a result, it all manages to drive up the suspense. This might be the first time that a film has legitimately sounded scary, and it only gets thicker with tension the further down you go.

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