Having starred in the U.S. remakes of The Ring and Funny Games, Naomi Watts leads another American reimagining of foreign-language horror with Goodnight Mommy. The original 2014 Austrian feature, co-directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, was a visceral psycho-chiller about mother-son ties twisted by distrust and withheld affection into a vicious nightmare. It was a fiendish exercise in exactingly controlled tone, atmosphere and ambiguity, which paid off with a final-act reveal that effectively recalibrated the entire story. Matt Sobel’s overhaul tones down the cruelty and eliminates the more grotesque touches, resulting in a chamber drama that never gets under the skin.
Premiering Sept. 16 on Amazon, the film is middle-tier streaming fare — well-acted, visually slick and powered by an ominous orchestral score from Alex Weston that loads up on heavy sawing strings. But that music struggles to do the unsettling work that should be the domain of Sobel’s direction and Kyle Warren’s screenplay. Like so many American horror remakes, the film goes soft on the malevolence that made its predecessor so disturbing and ultimately fails to stand on its own.
Twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) are dropped off by their father (Peter Hermann) to stay at the isolated country house of their famous mother (Watts), an actress recovering from surgery. The boys are somewhat freaked out when she greets them with her head wrapped in bandages and her face completely obscured aside from her eyes. She assures them it’s nothing to be afraid of: “Mommy just had a little procedure. I just needed a change, a fresh start.”
Right off the bat, Warren’s script over-explains instead of maintaining some mystery — the brothers’ parents are separated and their suddenly self-absorbed mother just had major face work done, so it could be the story of half the kids in Beverly Hills.
Mom’s reassurances aside, the boys soon notice something weird about her. The woman who sang them to sleep every night with “You Are My Sunshine” has been replaced by a chilly disciplinarian who establishes new house rules: no running or shouting; no sunlight; no playdates; her bedroom and office are off-limits, as is the barn. They wonder if she’s changed or whether it’s just their long separation that has made her stop loving them.
Elias and Lukas anger their mother when she catches them in the barn, where something ugly appears to have transpired. But the boys are more startled by her behavior when she thinks she’s alone and they sneak into her bedroom to observe her. Once a staunch nonsmoker, she’s now puffing away while dancing like a stripper in front of the mirror (to Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You”). Watts’ physicality in that scene has a curious alien quality, echoed in Elias’ body-horror dreams.
As the brothers take steps to distance themselves from her, their mother becomes more enraged and even violent. But the local police (Crystal Lucas-Perry, Jeremy Bobb) attribute their claims of endangerment to the over-active imagination of children, forcing them to take drastic measures to figure out what happened to their mother.
Anyone who’s seen the Franz-Fiala version will recall that things got extremely creepy at that point, as the boys shed all vestiges of innocence and became sadistic in their interrogation methods. That worked to inject uncertainty into the audience’s sympathies, shifting between the monstrous mother and the threatened sons, who were anything but defenseless. The steady tightening of the vise as scene after scene ratcheted up tension was excruciating
Tension and suspense are sacrificed here. The filmmakers seem more interested in exploring the violation of the sacred trust between a mother and her children for psychological drama than scares. That’s a valid enough choice, just not especially gripping in this telling. The perverse distortions of familial bonds in the Austrian movie felt genuinely subversive. Sobel and Warren’s take insists on grounding everything in trauma that’s so carefully signaled you’ll likely see the big twist coming.
Watts’ characterization is raw and abrasive enough to keep us guessing for a while, and the Crovetti brothers (seen previously as Nicole Kidman’s sons in Big Little Lies) provide enough subtle distinctions to convey how the power dynamic works between Elias and Lukas. The uneven performances that compromised Sobel’s otherwise promising first feature, Take Me to the River, are not an issue here. But as solid as the cast is, the story feels short-changed in this muted reinvention.
Distribution: Amazon Prime Video
Production companies: Playtime, Animal Kingdom, in association with Big Indie Pictures
Cast: Naomi Watts, Cameron Crovetti, Nicholas Crovetti, Peter Hermann, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Jeremy Bobb
Director: Matt Sobel
Screenwriter: Kyle Warren, based on the film by Veronika Franz and Severian Fiala, produced by Ulrich Seidl
Producers: V.J. Guibal, Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, Joshua Astrachan, David Kaplan
Executive producers: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala, Naomi Watts, Kyle Warren, Matt Sobel, Derrick Tseng, Sébastien Beffa, François Yon
Director of photography: Alexander Dynan
Production designer: Mary Lena Colston
Costume designer: Carisa Kelly
Music: Alex Weston
Editors: Michael Taylor, Maya Maffioli
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein, Allison Estrin
1 hour 31 minutes