Goodnight Mommy (German title Ich seh Ich seh, which translates to “I See I See”) feels like if Michael Haneke set out to emulate early Roman Polanski films. There’s something cold and calculated about the way the movie plays out, both on a visual and narrative level, but it’s an entirely human story. And that’s part of what makes it so freaking disturbing. Realistic, violent and detached, it plays out like a home invasion movie, but where any character could be the intruder in their own home.
The film takes place in the Austrian countryside, in and around an extravagant modern home where twin boys Lukas and Elias suspect that something strange is happening with their mother. The details are left ambiguous, but mother returns home from some sort of facial surgery, her face wrapped in bandages. Immediately the boys notice that something seems off about her behavior, and from there the film reveals its secrets slowly and deliberately. Mommy clearly favors one child over the other, but why? The boys do normal boy things, like run around outside and take turns burping loudly. But they also keep a collection of hissing cockroaches and play horrible tricks on their mom. On a fundamental level, the film plays with appearances and misdirection. Nobody is who they seem, and we get more questions than answers until the final minutes of the film.
Attentive viewers can pick up on the clues and correctly speculate what’s happening to this family, but the movie’s true power comes from its striking imagery: a dark tunnel, a naked body, a single bloodshot eye. These small moments are not inherently frightening usually; its the way in which they link together and progress, and the steady escalation of tension and dread that brings the unease. This is slowburn horror at its finest, which requires a certain amount of patience on the part of the viewer. But by the third act, there’s an expectation in every single scene that whatever comes next is going to up the ante further, making for some truly horrific and brilliant moments that are guaranteed to leave you squirming in your seat.
Horror movies don’t usually elicit a physical reaction from me, but there’s one scene in particular which I won’t spoil here that made my stomach churn. This is very physical, very disturbing psychological horror not for the faint of heart. It might not be as outright scary as other recent horror films such as The Babadook or The Conjuring, but it will stick with you for much longer.
If it’s traditional multiplex horror you’re looking for, i.e. jump scares and supernatural entities, it’s probably best to look elsewhere. Goodnight Mommy is more uncomfortable than scary, and heavily favors mood over pure stimulation. But if you can make it through to the climax, I can tell you there’s a good chance you’ll be watching the last twenty minutes through splayed fingers.