Goodnight Mommy was not what I expected. Which isn’t to say I had particularly in depth expectations for the film. The trailer had selected a few choice shots from the film that made me think that I was in for some good old supernatural horror. Maybe something a little like a more supernatural version of Borgman. That is not the type of film Goodnight Mommy is. It’s a psychological horror film, one more clinical than, say, the Roman Polanski style of psychological thriller. There’s something almost deliberately flat and clinical about a lot of Goodnight Mommy, especially in the last stretch of the film.
It was this final act of the film that really changed my perception of the movie. It’s where the film finally crystallizes and you realize exactly what kind of movie you’re actually watching. It’s also the chunk of the film that drove some of the small audience I saw it with from the theatre. I can safely say I wasn’t expecting that sort of thing. In some ways I’d misestimated the movie after it started. It seemed like the scares were pretty much all shown off in the trailer, and that the movie wouldn’t ever reach the crescendo of disconcerting imagery on display in the ad. It’s part of that supernatural mislead the trailer pulls. There are two distinctly supernatural images in the trailer. Both of them are dream sequences. A movie that I expected to be an atmospheric indie horror turned out to be this flat, medical, ugly film. Not that any of those descriptors are necessarily a negative with a horror film. Like I said the last act drove people from the theatre in fear, so one could hardly label it ineffective. Right? Well it gets to the skin crawling finale by taking a turn that I’m still a little unsure of.
Essentially the last chunk of the film becomes…. well torture porn seems like such a pejorative term, but I really can’t think of any other way to put it. It probably requires another term. Call it body horror I guess, although normally I wouldn’t use the label for something so rooted in the real world. It’s too elegant and restrained to be torture porn, and not transformative or monstrous enough to be body horror. I guess it’s just torture. Fairly brutal torture too. It’s not like it’s A Serbian Film, or even Cannibal Holocaust, instead it gets its stomach churning relatability from small scale, almost humdrum acts of torture. This movie made the small late night horror crowd in the theatre gasp and moan audibly. You could feel the audience straining away from the screen. All with scenes less graphic than some episodes of Hannibal. There’s really only a little bit of blood, and one slightly fleshy moment with some bloody flickers. There are a lot of household objects involved, and experiences you’ve probably had a tamer version of. It makes the small torture intensely affecting. It’s far too easy to relate to.
The problem, if there is one, is the tonal shift caused by this transition. There’s not much about the movie that concretely changes, but the subtleties shift dramatically enough that it feels not only noticeable but jarring. Before the torture scenes, the movie is quiet, concerned with a central mystery, and maybe a little more psychological. Child abuse is implied, past circumstances are vaguely hinted at, and the identity of the mother is a mystery. Even though the dream sequences aren’t a part of reality, the film feels like it draws more on that realm. The tension builds suddenly as the twins start monitoring and spying on their mother. Then the climax seems designed to pay this off, as well as serve as a mini-reversal and twist. The trouble is, in function, the climax just feels like a disparate and disconnected portion of the film. The change of pace, the abrupt end to all subtlety, and the reversals don’t feel like an organic conclusion to the rest of the story. They feel like a sharp turn accompanied by someone shouting “OKAY WE’RE DOING THIS NOW.” It doesn’t flow in any satisfying way. Maybe because there’s not quite enough plot. Most of the movie is very one sided, and this limited perspective also turns the twins into reactionary protagonists. There’s not enough of a tangible driving force. This leaves the scenes feeling like vignettes showing the kids responding to the situation. Sure they’re in chronological order, and sure this creates a sort of narrative, but it never feels like much of a plot. Maybe that’s not fair, but it really feels that way when you’re watching. There’s not much of a driving narrative, which would have really helped ramp the tension up. Instead the tension is a rather stop-start affair.
That being said, the fragmented portions of the movie with tense scenes are effective. Lack of heightening aside, they generate fair scares. The lack of driving plot does make them a little repetitive (I started to count the number of times an edit transitioned from very loud sounds to very quiet sound or vice versa). There are lots of good moments in the movie, some good terror, and some good ideas, but they’re a little cobbled together. Sure, the torture is an elegant lesson in minimalism, sure there’s some good thematic work going on about evil doppelgängers (and, of course, some Christian things) but it never quite comes together to become one solid film. I still liked it, for all the aforementioned reasons, there’s just this big missed opportunity hanging over the film. There’s so much actual dread and some interesting moments, and I quite liked the reveal, even though it was a little typical. Still, any movie that drives people from the theatre with legitimately subtle gore is worthy of viewing by horror fans. So if horrifying torture and the odd good scare sounds appealing, then Goodnight Mommy is probably worth checking out.