Slow burn horror films survive and thrive on two major elements – how goddamn creepy a director can make the atmosphere and tone, and how long they can hold that feeling for.
In 2014, Austrian filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz brought Goodnight Mommy into the world. An eerie-thriller about two brothers who return to their mothers country-side home, only to begin believing after a few strange occurrences, that this woman may not be their mother after all. Fiala and Franz’s film broods in an uneasy atmosphere, with patient direction, fear-inducing cinematography and mood-altering lighting, brought even more to life by an unsettling lead performance from Susanne Wuest as the mother. And while some (including myself) felt that the reveals and climax of the film felt slightly lacklustre compared to the film’s exponential build up, there is no denying that the overall eeriness of the film’s tone is one that left an effect long after the credits, and a tone that was honed in on even stronger in Fiala and Franz’s The Lodge (one of my favourite movies of 2020).
Now in 2022, and with the almost unavoidable trait of American-ising films for English speaking audiences, a US remake of Goodnight Mommy enters the streaming world via Prime Video, with Brand New Cherry Flavour director, Matt Sobel, attempting to add his spin and voice to the story, with Naomi Watts in the role of Mother.
Opening on an iPhone filmed shot, purposefully not showing the face of Mother, she sings her boys goodnight with a loving, but creepy tone setting rendition of You Are My Sunshine. After an unspecified, but not too prolonged time later, the boys, Elias and Lucas (real life twins Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) are travelling in a car driven by their father, towards an isolated house in the woods.
Considering the house is predominantly large-paned windows with nothing but naturistic views surrounding, the darkness that lies within feels purposefully physical, but also exudes from the presence of Watts’ ‘Mother’, who emerges from the darkness, her face bound in a gauze-like balaclava, the results of which she states is due to recent cosmetic surgery. Initially worrying to the boys, they eventually come around and embrace their mother lovingly after their prolonged absence from one another. However, it’s Elias who begins to suspect that Mother may not be who she says after a series of strange occurrences that don’t match with the demeanour and traits of the maternal figure he remembers.
Being a remake, there will always be similarities that are unavoidable for a filmmaker. If this was a loose adaptation, or even just a story inspired by the original Goodnight Mommy, there could’ve been a plethora of avenues that could’ve been pursued by director Matt Sobel to really create something unique to his voice, something he definitely did in his Netflix series, Brand New Cherry Flavour. Unfortunately, aside from very minor tweaks to certain reveals throughout the film, Goodnight Mommy feels like nothing more than a Google translator version of its Austrian predecessor.
Sobel’s film looks just as crisp as Fiala and Franz’s, with the similar lighting and shots that created the uneasy tension initially. However, there is a slight lifelness within the cinematography of this remake that takes away from the lasting effect of fear that it should be inducing. Rather than framing shots to have the audience looking around, uneasy at the fact that characters are being watched from the distance, Sobel’s direction seems to just capture what is happening directly in the scene without any extra substance to the story or characters.
This normally wouldn’t be an issue if what was getting captured on screen felt interesting or engaging, and had enough emotional weight to carry through the runtime. Unfortunately, that is again not the case for this remake. Watts’ performance seems to focus too much on being ‘creepy’, and not adding any three-dimensionality to her character. While the intention early on is to convince the audience that Mother has no affection for her children, the odd-stoicism mixed with faux parental love, creates an odd recipe of a character that doesn’t at any point come across as intimidating or scary, no matter how hard the script tries to increase the weird acts she performs throughout.
The Crovetti twins are trying their best with the material within the script, and when the emotional scenes (whether it is to be sad or scared) call for it, they both deliver at the level you would expect. The second half of the film calls on Elias and Lucas to be a lot more involved emotionally, and giving them both more to do within the story together becomes the most engaging part of the film.
A lot of Goodnight Mommy’s issues boil down to the fact that the script is just a complete rehash of the original, with a few minor changes to avoid complete plagiarism. Changes that have no real effect on where the movie ends up at the end of its journey, leaving it feeling very inferior to the original. While the reveals in the second half of the movie will most likely be unassumed by those who haven’t seen the Austrian version of the film, it still shares the same criticism of having a lacklustre finale for the build up that it presents. The ending isn’t bad and doesn’t diminish the story itself, but it’s definitely an ending that will leave unsatisfied tastes in audience mouths.
Goodnight Mommy may surprise audiences who haven’t seen the original, with a tense build up and darkly atmospheric tone that will have you feeling unsettled initially. But, stale performances, uninspired direction and a lacklustre finale will ultimately leave more dissatisfaction than enjoyment. Even though it shares the same thematic ending as the original film, at least that felt creepy enough to be memorable.
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