3 out of 5 stars

Based on Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Austrian film Goodnight Mommy / Ich Seh, Ich Seh (2014), but simplifying the storyline somewhat and reducing the brutality made especially shocking by the age of its perpetrators, Matt Sobel’s remake never quite conveys the sense of desperate threat it aspires to…

Still, it’s a cleverly constructed and well-performed horror-thriller outing in which a series of disconcerting scenes lead to a twist one may well have considered during the course of things, but will not be absolutely confident about.

That some great revelation is on the way is obvious early, but a number of possibilities remain viable until the final scene; ironically, only on rewatching a movie one probably won’t want to watch twice would one notice how consistently the quiet clues are dropped in, especially in the use of language and in the physical positioning of characters.

After a brief home video depicting a mother (Naomi Watts) singing a bedtime song to her twin sons, Elias (Cameron Crovetti) and Lukas (Nicholas Crovetti), Goodnight Mommy cuts to their father (Peter Hermann) dropping off the boys— now aged about 12—to stay with mum at her large home in rural America.

Before we even meet her, something seems off: while most of the house is impeccably tidy, her bedroom’s a squalid mess. And when she emerges to greet her sons, her face is wrapped in a gauze mask that gives her the air of a different kind of mummy. But she reassures them she “just had a… little procedure”… and later on, once we learn she was once a well-known actress, a facelift seems plausible…

Mum’s mask apart, at first the boys’ stay with her is relatively normal, despite a stricture that the blinds must be kept closed and a warning to stay out of the barn near the house. They are soon disobeying this, however, and find what appears to be blood on one of the building’s timbers. They’re taken aback, as well, by their mother’s wrath when she discovers their disobedience. “What if it’s been so long since we saw her that she doesn’t like us anymore?” one of them wonders.

Their discomfort grows when she’s overheard on the phone with an unknown person, her side of the conversation full of sinister possibilities: “He knows something’s wrong”—“I need him gone”—“How much longer do I have to keep pretending?” Her behaviour is odd; hiding in her room, they see her posing seductively for the mirror (still masked), moving to the strains of Edwyn Collins’s “A Girl Like You”. She’s started smoking, too, despite her previous detestation for the habit; and in a most unmotherly touch, she casually tosses one of the boys’ drawings in the bin.

Soon, the twins conclude that the woman behind the mask is not their mother, but an imposter of unknown—presumably unwholesome—intent. They allow their distrust of her to show overtly, and they decide they have to flee the house if they can. Naturally enough, there’s a fierce storm raging outside… and, as so often in small-cast, single-location horror films there is the unexpected intrusion of third parties around halfway through to take the narrative in a new direction.

Though the characteristic made-for-streaming visual sheen of Goodnight Mommy doesn’t do many favours for a film about doubt, misapprehension and (to use a term employed often by its characters) lying, director Matt Sobel and his team marshal a tiny ensemble of actors and limited spaces effectively. A scene where the unnamed mother has to break into the boys’ room is especially well-handled and well-edited, there’s a compellingly horrible dream sequence, and the pacing is never too slow or too hasty. Alex Weston, meanwhile, contributes a strong musical score that rarely resorts to spooky cliché.

It’s the three lead performers on whom the movie’s success or failure really depends, however, given that at least two of them (and frequently all three) are present at virtually every moment. And all do sterling work. Watts manages to make the mother convincingly human even under her mask, and still more so when it comes off, allowing us to sense that something is very wrong in her life without identifying what it is.

Of the boys (only a little older in real life than their characters), Cameron Crovetti as Elias is the more prominent and outspoken, but that makes Nicholas Crovetti’s performance as the milder, less emotional Lukas just as impressive: he may be quiet but we never forget he’s there. Among the few other roles, Crystal Lucas-Perry stands out as a policewoman.

The concepts underlying Goodnight Mommy are not in themselves original—it’s easy enough to discern elements of The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001) and The Lovely Bones (2009), for example, to name just a few. And the possible resemblances are so clear from early on that naming them doesn’t constitute a spoiler.

But it’s never merely derivative, and even if it provides satisfaction more as a puzzle than as a visceral experience, it stands out from most current made-for-streaming horror films in several respects.

Notably, while it doesn’t go as far as its Austrian model (or Eskil Vogt’s superb The Innocents from last year), it’s more willing than many movies to depict the ruthlessness of which normal, non-demonic children are capable. And it gains much impact from the filmmaker’s patience in saving the big reveal until the very, very end: one of the major questions running through the movie has a completely innocent explanation, and is a distraction from the real problem that underlies the boys’ situation.

“It’s terrifying—that line between reality and fantasy, it’s vanished,” Watts’s mother says at one point. And certainly, the viewer will realise early on that not everything in her home is as it seems. But trying to pin down exactly what is real and what’s deception is not nearly so easy, and helps Goodnight Mommy remain intriguing to its final moments.

USA | 2022 | 92 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Matt Sobel.
writer: Kyle Warren (based on the 2014 film written by Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala).
starring: Naomi Watts, Cameron Crovetti & Nicholas Crovetti.