A fairy tale for “Dogtooth” enthusiasts, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s “Goodnight Mommy” takes place in an austere, isolated Austrian home, where twin boys begin to suspect that something is wrong with their mother. But that’s only the beginning of this family’s dysfunction, as tension escalates to torture in the duo’s elegantly stylized, thoroughly unnerving attempt to creep the heck out of arthouse horror fans. The project, which recalls such child-centric chillers as “I’m Not Scared” and “The Orphanage,” was backed by fest vet Ulrich Seidl (for whom Franz co-wrote several pics), allowing it to court both genre and auteur fests.
Mommy looks monstrous when she comes home from the hospital, her body sexy but her face wrapped entirely in bandages. The clues are scarce at first, slyly delivered through a game of “Who am I?” where yes/no questions help us (but not her) identify the answer stuck to her head: Mama. Why doesn’t she recognize herself in this game? What happened to her face? And is that really her under all that gauze?
At least the kids have each other. That seems to be the one thing stopping this scary-looking woman, who comes across like a cold-blooded update on the evil-stepmother archetype, from doing something really cruel to one of them. Already she seems to favor Lukas over his brother Elias, refusing to speak to the latter and demanding absolute quiet while she recovers in a house that, while elegant, seems to have been decorated by a psychopath.
No wonder the twins (played by Lukas and Elias Schwarz) prefer to spend their time outdoors. They are always together, doing things ordinary kids do: playing hide-and-seek in the cornfield, throwing hailstones in the storm and sneaking a stray cat into their bedroom behind their mother’s back. But they also do things that, frankly, seem a little weird, like collecting big, gross beetles in a giant tank and hiding a baby monitor under mommy’s bed.
Something’s not right with these kids, but you can’t quite put your finger on it until they spring into action. Just as mom’s bandages start to come off, revealing a face just a little too perfect, they tie her up and demand to know what’s become of their real mother. Where are our loyalties now: Are we still with the twins, or does our allegiance shift to the mother?
Shooting in sleek 35mm, Franz and Fiala have dreamt up a home-invasion scenario where the aggressors lived there all along, like the children in Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” who lock their parents to their playroom to be devoured by lions. It was her or them, and in a freaky flip on things, it’s the kids who make the preemptive strike. Come to think of it, they were always hovering, doing that weird thing that only twins can where they speak in riddle and seem to read each other’s thoughts.
A hefty part of the suspense stems from the fact no one seems to be behaving rationally: not mommy, not the kids. They’re cut off from others, getting frozen food delivered in bulk so they don’t have to go into town. Dad is mentioned, but never seen. All of his photos have been banished from the house. But what about that strange image that mom left in the album, the one where she’s posed with a woman who appears to be her twin?
The twist — more an explanation really — reveals itself early here, doing so discreetly enough that only a fraction of the audience will pick up on it, promising wildly different viewing experiences for all. Still, best to let you discover the perversities for yourself. Suffice it to say, the pic’s reality is not our own — more akin to fellow Austrian Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” where psychology offers limited insights into human behavior and the body-horror moments feel nerve-twistingly raw.
Here, the helmers are clever in how they construct each scene so that everything can be explained, even certain impossible moments that seem to unfold only in the kids’ heads — dreams, maybe. Though even the waking moments have a nightmarish feel, which should serve this movie well when it goes out into the world and earn the directors eager fans for whatever they do next.