Naomi Watts shines in an even-handed remake that ends up more tame than terrifying
Elias and Lukas (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) are twins who arrive at their family’s lakeside retreat, eager to be reunited with their mother (Naomi Watts) after a long absence. When she comes to greet them, however, she’s far from recognizable. Instead, she wears a nightmarish white medical balaclava, covering up deep bruises and scars. Elias and Lukas’s stay becomes increasingly unnerving, full of bizarre behavior from their caretaker, leading them to suspect she may not be their mother at all, but instead a fiendish imposter with sinister plans for their family.
Matt Sobel’s remake of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s 2014 film Ich Seh, Ich Seh, surprised me when it was announced—for two reasons. First, it’s a markedly villainous return to horror for Naomi Watts after turning in defining roles in similar American adaptations of The Ring and Funny Games. Secondly, after the success of other recent international thrillers, I was shocked that this film was chosen to be remade at all. Austria’s Ich Seh, Ich Seh features an ingenious premise, one that already appeals to fans of both psychological dread and visceral physical terror, regardless of a language barrier. What’s more, one could argue that a spiritual remake of the film already exists in Severin and Fiala’s devilishly creepy English-language debut, The Lodge.
However, Watts’s previous forays into horror bolstered my excitement for her turn in this film, especially since the role is such a demanding and polarizing one for any actress to attempt. I was also interested to see how the film’s detached Austrian sensibilities and slow descent into terror translate into an American idiom that has now acclimated to the similar slow burn of “elevated horror.” While Watts does get plenty of time to showcase her range as both a villain and a tragic heroine, this adaptation of Goodnight Mommy fails to capture the patient brutality that pinned audiences to their seats nearly 10 years ago.
In interviews, director Matt Sobel has talked about how he did not want to make a full one-to-one translation of the original film, instead seeking to explore other possibilities contained within its premise. Sobel shows significant promise in the film’s early moments, as the child leads must now share nearly equal screen time with a villain once placed at such a deliberate remove. This furthers Goodnight Mommy’s initial ambiguity, as we are unable to definitively place our sympathies or attachment to any one protagonist. The Crovetti twins are given opportunities to differentiate Elias and Lukas from one another, creating more of a triangle of conflict between these boys and the seeming stranger. The film also gives Watts the chance to fully flesh out her character, with Sobel making it clear that two distinctly different stories are taking place between this mother and her sons.
The consequence, though, is that much of the suspense that fueled the original film is consolidated into smaller, lower-stakes sequences that fail to pack as much of an emotional punch. The action of the back half of the film is far tamer and more restrained than its Austrian counterpart, literally pouring cold water on Ich Seh, Ich Seh’s notorious Haneke-esque torture sequences. While one could argue that this allows for more psychological conflict among the film’s three characters, it seems more believable that Sobel has chosen to avoid alienating the audience from anyone trapped within Goodnight Mommy’s claustrophobic setting, and that this new focus on heightened tension makes more graphic moments seem somehow “inappropriate.”
Other supporting characters provide opportunities for the film to escape the main action, however briefly, as well as to tease the possibility of an overall escape for the boys. While these new elements are intriguing, Sobol and screenwriter Kyle Warren do little with these prospects other than pad the film’s runtime and remove scenes that were far more compelling in the original.
Goodnight Mommy isn’t without its merits. The literalization of some of the more atmospheric elements of Ich Seh, Ich Seh lends itself to visually compelling sequences of both beautiful landscapes and body horror, as dramatized by sequences involving what might be under Watts’s mask and what might lurk within a family barn. The score by Alex Weston is also beautifully elegiac, evoking the loss of innocence that thematically unites both films. Both are lush, overwhelming components that provide a welcome contrast to the starkness of the original film.
However, these feel like elements that tease out grander possibilities of what could have been a more boundary-pushing horror movie, and instead remind us of what makes Ich Seh, Ich Seh the continuing stuff of nightmares. The fear of these films isn’t rooted in unveiling what horrors might await us within the darkness—they’re instead about discovering what unknown horrors lurk within us, and what terrors we’re already capable of.
Goodnight Mommy is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.