Well this movie caught me completely off-guard. I had no idea what to expect given that this is the very first feature film of Austrian director duo Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz. Goodnight Mommy is about two young twin boys who live in a countryside house with their actress mom, and spend most of their waking hours playing together. Their mother has just had surgery and her face is covered in bandages, rendering her unrecognizable to the twins. They become convinced that the woman who has returned from surgery is not their real mother...and I won't spoil the rest.
If you have any interest in cinema as an art form, Goodnight Mommy is an absolute must-see. It is the most beautifully shot film I've seen since Under the Skin. Each shot is framed in such a meticulous and perfectly orchestrated way that you could pause the film at any time and end up with a still worthy of hanging on your wall. I've never seen a director put Venetian blinds to such diverse and good use, especially the nighttime shots of them, it made natural movement look slithery and creepy.
The most haunting aspect of the incredible visuals was the approach to the scares, if you can call them that, in the first half of the film. The horror in Goodnight Mommy changes about halfway through, from purely subtle and visual to very unnerving body horror and even gore. Those subtle shots in the beginning reminded me of the old French film Eyes Without a Face. The mother is shown only in her bandages, with the audience having no reference point for what is under there, which helps us imagine the most horrible. She lurks like a monster in dark shadows and in reflections, and it is as chilling as it is beautiful, I enjoyed it immensely.
That's not to say I was disappointed when the movie changed direction to the much more macabre in its second half. Exactly the opposite, in fact. The directors handle both subtlety and violence incredibly well, resulting in two entirely different but equally enjoyable halves. This transition also helped keep this very personal, three actor, single location film interesting until the end. It helped it avoid treading similar ground more than once. And oh my god what a second half we have here. The kind of violence the characters commit against each other is so specifically chosen. It may not be the bloodiest or most disturbing ideologically, but it is always acts that are very easy to imagine and relate to, so you actually end up feeling them in your body as if happening to you. This is body horror done right in my opinion.
Goodnight Mommy also did something that very few movies dare to do. It interrupted the last third, the most tense part of a movie, with a hilarious 5 minute comedy scene involving some Red Cross workers. It was a big risk considering all the laughing could potentially diminish the impact of the ending once we return to the violence at hand. Instead it played it off masterfully and made the ending seem even more vile juxtaposed against the lightheartedness of that scene. On this note, all the other funny scenes in the film were also excellent. The beginning made me laugh much more than once.
The downside is that one of the twists worked really well for this movie BUT was alluded to way too well, so you guess it before the first third is even over. On top of that, it's a twist that's already been done in a not too dissimilar Asian film before, so it is old news for hardcore horror fans. Regardless, this weak hiding may have been intentional since the movie doesn't make that big of a deal out of it in the end. In fact, the twist creates a very clever distortion of your perception of the characters initially, and twists (no pun intended) your expectations of who is up to what. So although not original, it just made the rest of the movie better so I'll accept it as a necessary evil.
Goodnight Mommy is one of the strongest horror debut films I've seen. It is stunning body horror, and puts most other films to shame with its cinematography. Well-directed, well-acted, well-everything. An absolute must-see.