The Austrian horror film GOODNIGHT MOMMY seems to have come out of nowhere. I was first introduced to it at a secret screening during 2014’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. I had no clue what I was in store for. Not only was the screening unannounced, I had never even heard of the film or the filmmakers before. Now it is playing this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival, though the premise of the film is still a bit shrouded in mystery to American audiences. Most films benefit from the viewer being slightly in the dark about what they are about to see, and GOODNIGHT MOMMY embeds this proclivity to mystery by telling the story through children.
The original title of the film is ICH SEH ICH SEH (“I see I see”)—an appropriate title, as the film’s main characters are young twins. The brothers, Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz), are on summer vacation with their mother (Susanne Wuest). They would like nothing more than to spend all day rambunctiously playing with one another, but this summer is different. Their mother has changed. Initially, we presume the change is superficial: she is recovering from facial surgery. Their mother is a presenter on television who is taking some time away from the cameras to heal her wounds. Though we do not really know exactly which procedures she has had, we can see that the work is extensive. She is wearing a mask of gauze and acts physically uncomfortable. She needs her rest in order to heal properly, but having two rowdy kids at home makes this respite difficult. This constant battle between mother and sons, between a summer of rest and a summer of fun, is the source of the initial friction in the film.
What sets GOODNIGHT MOMMY apart from other films of familial drama is that the story is told from the perspective of the twins. Lukas and Elias are the main characters of the film, not their mother. Given the ultimately brutal third act of the film (I did warn that it is a horror film, but will leave out any spoilers) the intended audience of the film is adults. It is natural for the audience to empathize more with the mother than with the very young boys, but by shifting the audience’s association, the directors (Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz) give us more opportunities for fright.
Fear is often aligned with the existence of unknowns. You are scared of the dark merely because you do not know what may be in the dark. This Schrodinger’s gray area is what feeds our imagination and feeds our greatest fears. By creating a stronger connection to Elias and Lukas, we are aligning with the characters in the film who know the least. These boys do not comprehensively understand what their mother is going through. With the pressures of a public profession and with raising these boys seemingly by herself, recovering from extensive facial surgery must be a lot to handle. But the film does not allow us to side with her in this difficult time. Instead we are persuaded to see everything from the twins’ perspective. They have a mother who has lost all patience with them and has brought them into the middle of nowhere for an extended stay. Their kind, beautiful mom has now been replaced by a gauze-covered, grumpy hag who does not want them to enjoy anything. This sudden transformation gets the twins thinking about what could possibly have happened to their mother. As their imaginations run wild, they default to a worst -case-scenario-thinking for children. To children, the boogeyman is a real potential threat; rationality is not (yet) a given.
The twins’ ignorance forces the audience to conjure an explanation for the mother’s behavior. In the magical world of cinema nearly anything is possible, and in horror films, often the least plausible explanation is the truth. So when the little boys let their imaginations run wild, the audience follows. In film I have seen a giant shark eat an entire boat, monkeys fly, and the apocalypse many times over. Who am I to say what can and cannot happen in GOODNIGHT MOMMY?
This is precisely the joy of film. Were two young boys to approach me in real life and tell me wild tales of their scarred and changed mother, I would not believe them. But up on the big screen, it makes perfect sense to believe the impossible. I am not, after all, sitting in the theater to watch a perfect reflection of my boring life. I am there to watch the world through young children’s eyes, to see exactly what fantasies they can dream up.