American novelist and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis on his popular and provocative podcast has recently decried the rise of what he calls ‘Indie Arthouse horror’. Among the films that form the vanguard of what Ellis wants to see as some kind of new wave (although in a pejorative sense) is the 2014 Austrian film Goodnight Mommy (original title Ich seh, Ich seh).
Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Goodnight Mommy opens with two boys (Elias and Lukas Schwarz, looking like they would be quite at home in the Village of the Damned) playing a game of tag in a field of corn (horror fans will immediately think of Children of the Corn). The boys, Elias and Lukas, are brothers and live in a remote house with their mother (Susanne Wuest). The mother has recently returned home with her face wrapped in bandages following some kind of surgery. Instantly the family dynamic is off in subtly disturbing ways. The mother pointedly refuses to acknowledge one of the boys due to some unknown transgression for which his brother in vain urges him to apologise. In an early and very disconcerting scene they play a game of who am I. One of the boys writes ‘mama’ on a PostIt and sticks it on her forehead. The mother is then unable to identify herself as the correct answer despite increasingly obvious hints from the boys.
There is clearly an unspoken trauma in the house which may or may not be connected with the absence of a father/husband figure. Brief oblique snatches of telephone conversations are overheard by the children and by extension the audience, but they don’t make clear the situation. As their mother is increasingly cold towards them, prone to sudden outbursts of anger. The boys now come to suspect that the bandaged woman in their home may not really be their mother at all.
It is tempting to call Goodnight Mommy the most Austrian film of the year (unless your idea of Austrian cinema is Arnold Schwarzenegger firing an RPG from a tractor. Then we are off on the wrong foot). The dispassionate shooting style, the picturesque mid 20th Century house, the middle class milieu, and the way horror seems to lurk in the shadows of domestic banality, all bring to mind the austerity of Michael Haneke. In interview Franz and Fiala have been resistant to the Haneke comparison, whilst they acknowledge that their film shares a certain coldness with something like Funny Games, they correctly see Haneke’s film as being in opposition to the genre.
Goodnight Mommy is a slow burn, and for the first two thirds of the movie you may find yourself wondering why it is positioned in the horror genre at all. This makes the third act plunge into horror all the more effective, as the tensions and suspicions that have been building over the previous hour erupt into violence. Haneke is a filmmaker who is openly hostile to genre, and used it’s tropes as weapons against the audience.
With Goodnight Mommy Franz and Fiala take the opposite approach and fully commit to genre. This is a film that does not feel at all like a horror movie up to the point where it really, really does. The clinical and voyeuristic shooting style of the first two acts is replaced by a more immersive, emotionally engaging handheld style and an cold film becomes a hot bloody tragedy.
Goodnight Mommy is interesting in that it is a horror film without a clear antagonist. Both the children and their mother flirt with the role but also with victim, it is not evident where our sympathies should lie. While not graphic in the style of the SAW or Hostel movies, there is a torture element in the film and a couple of really wince inducing moments (this is especially not a movie recommended for anyone who suffers from katsaridaphobia).
Goodnight Mommy is not without issues. There is a plot point that revolves around the sudden appearance at the front door of a pair of Red Cross charity collectors who act in a frankly unbelievable way that smacks of contrivance. There is also a significant plot development that has been the focus of some controversy. Without details, some have felt this is telegraphed far too early and could be seen looming over the horizon like a Ferry on a calm sea. I agree that the approaching revelation announced itself very early in the film and it seemed more and more obvious as it continued, I am torn as to whether this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers. If not, the film is not nearly as clever as it believes that it is. If purposefully done it may be too clever for its own good.
So what of Ellis’ new ‘indie arthouse horror’ label?
The initial question of genre is I think easily dismissed, the films Ellis identifies at the bleeding edge of this horror wave (The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, Goodnight Mommy) have little in common apart from a desire to bring subtext closer to the surface, and to pull back from the relentless pacing that characterises James Wan and (many of) Blumhouse Production’s films. Films like Insidious, Sinister, The Conjuring are so designed as to give the audience a fairground ride of quiet… quiet… LOUD… jump scares. Granted both The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy are about finding horror in mother and son relationships (or sons in the case of the later), but the emotional hysteria that The Babadook strives for could not be further away from the clinical and dispassionate point of view in Goodnight Mommy.
Ellis’ real beef with these films appears to be connected to his own nostalgia for American horror films of the late seventies and eighties. The idea that horror films aimed at an audience that is looking for more that a retread of slasher tropes and overt shock moments is in any way novel is ridiculous. Especially to a European sensibility more familair with films like Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (not that Americans are incapable of layered genre films). The Babadook in particular shows the influence of Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby with its focus on the psychological distress of a central female character.
There is nothing wrong with the good honest American movie values found in chopping up half dressed necking teenagers attending summer camp, but it would be a poor state of affairs if the horror dark forest was burned back to leave only saplings of the sensationalist exploitation movies Ellis seems to prize.
Leaving aside The Witch, which I have yet to see, and personal opinion of each film’s individual quality (for the record The Babadook did not click with me at all but I adored It Follows) the uniting factor among these films is that they are clearly horror films. I don’t know Ellis’ opinion of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, I suspect it may fall into the same spurious category he is making an effort to create, but that film for me is borderline horror. The Babadook, It Follows and Goodnight Mommy all clearly use horror tropes. It Follows is about a supernatural stalker and is modelled as much on M.R. James’ story Casting the Runes as it is Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy both exploit the fear of children and the fears of children.
After a long round of festivals and at the tail end of its international release schedule, Goodnight Mommy receives a limited UK release from Vertigo on the 4th of March.
Whatever I say above, the Bret Easton Ellis podcast (or BEE podcast) is essential listening for movie fans. His infuriating interview with Eli Roth gives more background detail on his beef with arthouse horror. I did not agree with almost every word, but it was still provocative and challenging. You can find the podcast at http://podcastone.com/Bret-Easton-Ellis-Podcast
Goodnight Mommy is also discussed in episode 3 of the Streampunk podcast, a new cult movie show from my good friends Ben Howard and Dan Auty who used to run the superb Mondo Movie podcast. You can find Steampunk on iTunes, etc, or visit their site http://www.streampunk.show