Set almost entirely within one house, the influence of Austrian auteur Michael Haneke is stamped all over Goodnight Mommy, a stunning statement of intent from writer/director duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala that manages to deliver a steady stream of escalating tension without ever threatening to overplay its hand.
It’s a film that, from its opening sequence, allows its audience absolutely no room to breathe. Identical twins Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) come home and find their mother (Susanne Wuest) in the house, having returned from hospital following what appears to be extensive facial surgery. Her face swathed in bandages, it’s not the touching reunion it might have been: she’s uncomfortably brisk with the kids, and seems especially dispassionate towards Elias. As she becomes increasingly hostile and unpredictable, the brothers begin to ponder the possibility that the effectively faceless woman in their home isn’t their mother.
Almost entirely without music and often unfolding in long, static shots, it’s to Goodnight Mommy‘s infinite credit that even in its climactic moments, it never goes off the dramatic deep end. Franz and Fiala know precisely what they want to do here, and their clarity of vision is utterly unwaivering, even balancing some humour expertly in the form of a poorly-timed house call from a pair of clueless chairty workers. There are no real jump scares here, no bluster or gratuitous gore (although one scene will send all but the most seasoned horror fans squirming) – the horror of Goodnight Mommy lies in its performances, its perfectly measured pace, its austere direction, and most of all, the insidious fear of an unknown presence in what was once a safe space.