DIR: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz • WRI: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz • PRO: Ulrich Seidl • DOP: Martin Gschlacht • ED: Michael Palm • MUS: Olga Neuwirth • DES: Hubert Klausner, Hannes Salat • CAST: Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest
Recent dark, socio-cultural events have altered the frontiers of the Austrian family, disrupting the perceived reputable image embodied by the wholesome, singing Von Trapps and inviting scrutiny on the nation’s relationship between the family and its national identity. Leading social commentators have asserted that Austria is a nation in denial and lurking beneath the glittering, snow-crystal mountain tops and Lederhosen and Dirndl-wearing choirs, lies a disturbing, malignant evil, deeply embedded in the country’s psyche, which the nation has gone to great pains to suppress. It is this contradiction between the perception of idyllic wholesomeness and a piqued disavowal of its depraved and rotting stains, that Austrian writers-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz explore in their debut Goodnight Mommy, an arthouse, matricide horror, which overturns the mythical vision of the Austrian family and national identity, so carefully (re) constructed by its own history.
Twin brothers Lukas and Elias lead a charmed, fairy-tale life in the tranquil Austrian countryside. Living in a beautiful Alpine chalet, they spend hot, relaxed days swimming in the lakes, running through the cornfields and jumping on trampolines, simply being kids without a care in the world. When their loving mother returns home from hospital, her face heavily bandaged from an undisclosed operation, her out-of-character behaviour leads the boys to think that she is an imposter. As her cruel actions grow more erratic, the boys resort to drastic measures to get their mother to prove her identity.
Tapping into recent social events and aligning itself with an evident shift in the genre, Goodnight Mummy presents and deconstructs a Utopian vision of the Austrian family and national identity, by lifting the lid on the carefully concealed contradictions that reinforce this ideological façade. Locating the film within a new surge of psychological horror films, such as It Follows, the narrative presents an alternative, multi-layered interpretation to the genre’s traditional intensity of suspense, by toying with new psychological ways to tap into primal fears, which thwart conventional constructions of suspense and challenge how horror is viewed (and whether it is even horror at all). Dividing critical opinion and hailed as one of the scariest films of all time on the one hand, while likened to a manipulative torture porn film on the other, regardless of how it is received, Goodnight Mommy certainly does not allow audiences to sit comfortably on the fence.
Standing in opposition to the overplayed, action-orientated, blood curdling, visceral gorefest synonymous with horror, Goodnight Mommy employs similar psychological tactics found in film noir and the gothic by arousing the same cultural moods of paranoia and mistrust, which have resulted from a disruption to a seemingly, civilized ideal. Unfolding in an achingly, laborious manner, the trudging, sedate pace plays on audience’s anticipatory senses by teasing out the narrative to the point of complete exasperation, the prickly tension designed to unnerve and infuriate, rather than thrill and titillate. The film’s exquisite style, captured through a palpably unsettling lens, becomes all the more disquieting, as slow, dark tracking shots and throbbing, pregnant silences, tear down the illusions of familial normality, to put the depraved, the sinister and the corrupt, firmly in the spotlight.
Reconfiguring victim and villain identity, through the sense of isolation felt by two vulnerable children who cannot come to terms with their mother’s new, callous demeanour, the film implements the alternative means of creating suspense in the genre of the past decade, evoking a new type of edginess, mistrust and doubt, which psychologically manipulates audience’s consciences and taunts moral and emphatic judgment. By toying with the psychological anticipation of fear and suspense, through a very simple plot of questionable identity, the film lures its audience into an excruciatingly, torturous sense of frustration and confusion before unleashing an unsettling maelstrom of abject horror and trauma. Similar to the sense of expectancy found in Gothic, where the supposed symbols of harmony, the grand house and sweeping, bucolic landscapes, become the playgrounds with which to unleash and shatter the illusion of idyll, the directors flirt with audience expectation, giving no clear indication of the depravity rooting beneath the surface nor ever fully convincing they are nourishing a vision of hell.
Disturbing, distressing and deliciously creepy, divided critical opinion both have valid arguments. It is, at times, too achingly slow to bear and the impatient anticipation of horror is both sadistic and cunning. An abrupt shift and challenge to a perceived identity, not influenced by paranormal or supernatural factors with which an audience can relate to, augment an angst and paranoia, which stands in opposition to the traditional, visceral experiences in horror. It would be misleading to say the film contains a thunderbolt twist, the narrative leaving plenty of teasing markers to enhance the expectation of fear, but that is not its point. It is the anticipation of violence and the possibility of disruption to the idyll, rather than the actual violence and the revelation of a family’s rotting stains, which makes Goodnight Mommy, not only successful in gnawing at more traditional means of viewing and receiving horror but more significantly, speak volumes about a nation’s socio-cultural malignancies that shatter a carefully orchestrated mythical ideal.
Goodbye Mommy is released 4th March 2016