Dir: Matt Sobel. Starring: Naomi Watts, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Peter Hermann, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Jeremy Bobb. 15, 91 minutes.
Goodnight Mommy was a 2014 Austrian horror that came and went with a small murmur of excitement, largely due to the twist hidden in its final act. Two kids, Lukas and Elias, bearing the feral stares and thin faces of baby bogeymen, arrive home one afternoon to find their mum back from the hospital. She’s undergone a cosmetic procedure and her head is mummified in bandages. But dear mother is so strange now: she refuses to acknowledge Lukas, and grows cruel and violent when the boys disobey her. Soon, they become convinced she’s been replaced by an imposter.
The film, directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, defined itself both through its cruelty and its sparseness – a cousin to the works of fellow Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke, with a dash of The Shining’s alienating architecture. The American remake, of course, ignores all of this. It’s a telephone game approach to repurposing art. The film recounts the original without quite remembering what genre it was, what it was trying to do, or what it was trying to say.
The first mistake of this new, commercialised Goodnight Mommy is Naomi Watts. Not her performance – Watts is a profoundly talented actor who’s rarely given the credit she deserves – but the fact she is a known and recognised entity, which is the exact opposite of what this story demands. Goodnight Mommy hinges on the terror of the unknown: what lies behind those bandages? Horns? Fangs? Other demonic features? No, it’s just the face of the woman who should have won an Oscar for Mulholland Drive (2001).
The role was played with an imperial coldness in Franz and Fiala’s original by relative newcomer Susanne Wuest. But here, because Watts is Watts, the film must reconfigure itself around her, shifting clumsily away from disquieting horror to a more conventional portrait of a woman on the brink. Watts gets a lovely, modern home seemingly furnished by Habitat; a handsome and kind estranged husband (Peter Hermann); and a glass of chardonnay in the evening. What first concerns her children (Nicholas Crovetti and Cameron Crovetti), who look like the squeaky-voiced protagonists of an Amblin film, isn’t any kind of alien behaviour. It’s the fact she now smokes.
In short, she’s too human. Watts is an actor who always seems a second away from shattering, as if a tidal wave of emotion is about to burst out. When she waterboards Elias in the shower, it doesn’t read as nightmare fodder but as straightforward child abuse. And it’s not because Goodnight Mommy is attempting to radically question our concept of “monstrous women”; director Matt Sobel still approaches the material as horror (although the film’s third act gore fest has been thoroughly sanitised and replaced with a few random dream sequences).
And the twist? It’s more concealed here than in the original film, but in such a haphazard way that I can only imagine it’s even more obvious here. Kyle Warren’s screenplay tries so desperately to skirt around the truth that the dialogue is filled with non-sequiturs – phrases that don’t read as ambiguous in meaning, but empty of it. All in all, the film is exactly as you’d imagine a Hollywood remake to be. It’s too po-faced, too stripped of its meanness. And so drearily inevitable.
‘Goodnight Mommy’ streams on Prime Video from 16 September