Horror is a hard genre to be a fan of sometimes. It can take some digging to find the real gems, especially around this time of year when every distributor wants to pile on the latest PG-13 garbage Insidious, Paranormal Activity or Sinister sequel, not to mention the deluge of no-name direct to VOD crap, the modern equivalent of the lurid potpourri of blood, guts and tits that peppered the horror racks at Video Stores in their heyday, that look interesting but probably aren’t. America has been acquitting itself well in the “Horror that doesn’t suck” arms race over the past few years, with retro minded synthesizer scored shockers like You’re Next, The Guest and the recent It Follows turning subgenres on their ears and keeping audiences smart and brave enough to seek them out guessing. This year Austria joins the fray with Goodnight Mommy, seemingly predictable and rote in form but anything but in function.
Rookie directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala transport us to an idyllic ultramodern home amidst vast cornfields in the middle of nowhere, the perfect playground for two young twin boys, that is until their mother returns home from a facial surgery, her head ominously wrapped in bandages, stricter and colder to the boys than we’re led to believe she was before, and refusing to acknowledge, feed, clothe or even speak to one of them. What follows is a brutal game of both physical and mental one-upmanship, resembling a bloodily mean spirited and at times blackly comic version of Home Alone even more so than the aforementioned You’re Next. A twist at the midpoint may be easy to decipher by some audience members but don’t dismiss this type of plotting as mere Shyamalan level hucksterism, the film has so much more to offer beyond this aspect that it seems as if the filmmakers were almost hinting at too much at the outset to lull viewers into a false sense of security and superiority for the true endurance test to come.
“Torture Porn” is a term that genre critics like to throw around to demean the impact of such onscreen carnage, and sometimes that can be true of modern mainstream horror’s leanings towards sensationalism without substance. But that is far from the case here, as Franz and Fiala use violence extremely effectively to illustrate a brilliant and biting meditation on the cruelty of children, to themselves, each other, and their parents, and the futility of any possible retaliation, even if completely warranted. In the end we are all mere cockroaches burning under a magnifying glass, powerless against being trampled underfoot by the inexorable march of the next generation.