Goodnight Mommy has gotten a bit of an unfair dismissal from a lot of people due to its twist – or, more accurately, due to the obviousness of its twist. It probably won’t take you long into Goodnight Mommy to see where this is going – for me, I was about ten minutes in when I knew for sure, and even before that, I had my suspicions. And yet, to dismiss the film because of that seems absurd, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I don’t think the film is trying to shock you with that twist at all.
But let me back up, and try to explain a bit more about what makes Goodnight Mommy so effective and nasty a horror film. The setup is simple: two young boys (twins) are wandering, playing around their house and lands. Their mother is covered in bandages, which obscure her face; she’s apparently had surgery, we gather, and has to heal. But she’s also acting strangely: mood swings, aggressive comments, pettiness, and all sorts of things of that nature. And the boys are beginning to think that whatever is under those bandages isn’t their mother at all.
That’s basically the setup of the film, and it certainly leads you to expect one kind of film: one in which the boys are threatened by this monstrous creature that’s only pretending to care for them. But Goodnight Mommy has a very different goal in mind, and it’s a far more unsettling and strange one…which brings up back to the twist in the film.
If Goodnight Mommy treated its (very late in the game) reveal of what was really going on as a big deal, I might agree with those who felt that it was anticlimactic and fizzled the movie. Instead, though, Goodnight Mommy plays its cards pretty openly, making us realize that there’s something deeply wrong with these boys. And though we suspect the nature of part of that problem, it feels like parts of a much bigger puzzle – and the edges of something much darker and nastier. Indeed, the obviousness of the twist only adds to our unease and discomfort, as it becomes clear that this is being talked around not to fool the viewer or as a way of being smarter than its audience, but to appease the boys and keep them happy.
All of which adds to the fantastic atmosphere and creepiness of Goodnight Mommy, which uses its narrow focus (it rarely leaves the house and never leaves the land around it, and only features about half a dozen characters beyond our main three, all of whom are barely in the film) to ratchet up the tension and keep us constantly off-kilter, wondering who to trust, what’s going on, and exactly how bad things are going to get. And by the time we hit the third act, we realize how far Goodnight Mommy is willing to go, the point of that twist, and exactly how little it matters to what’s going on. Because, trust me, while you may know the twist, it’s unlikely you’re prepared for how horrifying Goodnight Mommy becomes by its end.
Goodnight Mommy doesn’t earn a place with some of the best new horror films (It Follows, The Babadook, The Orphanage, etc.), mainly because it doesn’t bring out the subtext and richness of some of those films. There’s something solid at the core of Goodnight Mommy – a lesson about grief, parenting, and the like – but the film never really engages with it in enough depth to make it truly soar. Instead, it’s a hook for a nightmarish scenario, and a nasty little horror flick that crawls under your skin. Is it great? No, but it’s memorably nasty in all kinds of ways, and that goes a long way.