One would hope that the motivation for a filmmaker choosing to remake a critically acclaimed European horror movie would be a deep admiration for the piece of work he’s now adapting for an English-speaking audience. It’s something of a thankless task, because in embarking on such an endeavor, the filmmaker would have to know that questions of “Why did this need to be remade?” will already be an inevitable hurdle. The answer to that question—that American audiences are lazy, and that studios don’t think much of their ability to appreciate a film with subtitles—is the same that it’s always been. It’s a question that has long since been rendered pointless to genuinely debate. The more concerning topic, given something like Amazon’s new Goodnight Mommy remake, is “Did the director even like the original film?” And if he did, why would he choose to strip it of all the elements that made it so skin-crawlingly effective?
Whatever the reason, it’s this smoothing and simplification that ultimately undoes Amazon’s Goodnight Mommy, hitting the streaming service today as a Naomi Watts-starring remake of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s nightmare-fueling 2014 Austrian film. New director Matt Sobel, by comparison—known primarily for the tense 2015 psychological family drama Take Me to the River—has preserved the broad beats and plot of the original, while abandoning any of the potentially unsavory elements that made the original film an anxiety-inducing watch. This story has been painstakingly and brutally shoved through the American cinematic food processor, mushed into pablum and carefully stripped of any texture that might offend the palate. It’s not attempting to thrill, or to frighten, unless those involved had a very low threshold of what the audience might find thrilling or frightening.
Goodnight Mommy is the story of a fractured family unit, which sees twin brothers Elias and Lucas being dropped off at a remote farmstead to spend an extended visit with their estranged mother. Mom, a seemingly faded former actress of some renown—one wonders how Watts felt about the implications of the casting—has recently undergone extensive cosmetic surgery on her entire face, necessitating strange, over-the-head bandages as she recovers, almost ski-mask like in appearance. This discomfiting visual, coupled with Mom’s strange changes in behavior and cold, distant disposition eventually lead the brothers to consider a terrifying possibility: What if the woman under the bandages isn’t their mother after all, but an imposter? It’s a powerfully simple premise that pits the realities and inherent power imbalance of adulthood against the imagination and perceptiveness of children.
In both versions of the film, this dynamic is used to explore questions of who we are, as opposed to who we present ourselves to be. The strange behaviors the boys see from their Mother—are these the telltale signs of an imposter? Or are they simply parts of their mother she had always managed to successfully hide in the past? Is her true identity literally that of a stranger, or has her “true self” simply been a stranger to them all along? These sorts of preserved themes are the strongest aspects of Kyle Warren’s screenplay, but it rapidly runs out of steam when it becomes apparent that the film fears to tread anywhere near the more transgressive territory of the original, as the brothers decide they must take matters into their own hands.
Put simply, this version of Goodnight Mommy is badly lacking in verve and conviction, sanitizing the film it’s remaking as it attempts to shy away from confronting its more genuinely disturbing elements. It’s an odd choice for what is being marketed as a scary horror film, released during the build-up to the Halloween season—why, for instance, did the production designers choose to make the mask so much less visually menacing this time around? Watts may be game to play a character of grey moral standing, whom the audience is meant to occasionally fear, but she’s being done no favors via something so seemingly small as costuming or makeup; Austrian actress Susanne Wuest got far greater mileage out of a detail so ultimately inconsequential as her bloodshot eyes. A viewer who has seen the original film can perhaps imagine why producers would be squeamish about following its plotting to a tee, but here we’re skimping on even the most basic of potentially fright-inducing elements. It’s as if the film, never bound for theaters, is attempting to keep a non-existent PG-13 rating intact, for reasons unknown.
This reticence has the effect of simplifying and streamlining the audience’s empathetic reaction to the characters, which is much more fluid in the 2014 original. Here, it feels like the desire is to clarify who we’re meant to sympathize with in any given moment, to leave nothing to chance or interpretation. One of the strongest aspects of the Austrian film is the way it compels one’s judgement to waffle back and forth on a minute-by-minute basis, up to the film’s closing moments. Those shades of gray are obliterated by steadily advancing walls of black and white.
Simultaneously, this Goodnight Mommy is let down by its depressing, staid cinematography, as encapsulated by its washed-out color palette and glacial movement. Its images are both sun-bleached and freezing cold from start to finish, the visual equivalent of getting hypothermia and sunburn at the same time. There is no doubt intent here, some extremely broad visual metaphor for the coldness of the central relationship, but this sort of muted visual aesthetic feels increasingly abused in modern indie horror, especially by relatively inexperienced directors attempting to give their films some kind of “elevated horror” sheen of respectability, as if simply oppressing the audience is the same as affecting them. Whereas the original film’s naturalistic visual style contains the occasional pops of color and vitality, this one just feels like a slog of enforced consistency, with no peaks or valleys to break the monotony. It’s not quite a member of the David Yates school of visual lifelessness, but it’s not far off, either.
As for the performances…they’re fine, but ultimately of such little impact to the overall presentation that they hardly bear mentioning. Cameron Crovetti pulls the heavy lifting of the two brothers, portraying the conflicted Elias with assured professionalism, but he too is let down by a distinct lack of imagination, an absent willingness to allow the character to explore more deranged territory. Any time Goodnight Mommy tiptoes toward the brink, there’s a hand waiting to yank it back toward mundanity.
With that said, for an audience member who hasn’t seen the 2014 original, this version of Goodnight Mommy will be significantly easier to consume (and then forget in short order). To that viewer, the film may register as a competent but uninspired, twisty psychological thriller with a nagging sense of familiarity. To fans of the original, however, seeing a modern classic replaced by a sanitized imposter may feel creepily appropriate, if disappointing.
Director: Matt Sobel
Writer: Kyle Warren
Starring: Naomi Watts, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti
Release Date: September 16, 2022
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.