Goodnight Mommy Is Every Tepid American Horror Remake

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<i>Goodnight Mommy</i> Is Every Tepid American Horror Remake

When I heard that an American remake of Goodnight Mommy had been greenlit, I remember my first thoughts being “Oh, no,” and “That probably won’t be good.” In general, when Hollywood sets its sights on redoing a foreign horror film in its own image, that usually means the new film will take away mostly everything that made the original film scary: Atmosphere, tension, restraint. etc. But I like to keep an open mind. As a critic and lover of film, I always want a film to be good, despite the many who believe critics only enjoy tearing a film down. However, Matt Sobel’s overly literal, hand-holding reimaging of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s taut, disturbing psychological German-language horror leaves plenty to be desired. My desires, in particular, while watching at the film’s New York premiere, were that I would rather just be watching the original.

This seems to be the case when it comes to American remakes of non-English language horror films, a trend that once occupied, in particular, a large chunk of time during the early-to-mid 2000s. It followed the success of a number of Asian horror films—Ju-On: The Grudge, Pulse, One Missed Call, A Tale of Two Sisters—that Hollywood felt it could translate to domestic markets. But aside from Gore Verbinski’s pivotal adaptation of Ringu, none could quite capture the hearts and minds of audiences. And especially, not those of critics.

These adaptations went almost entirely extinct into the 2010s, other than a second attempt at The Grudge in 2020, which I think most people have forgotten about (I almost did while writing this piece!). While Hollywood seemingly disavowed tackling Asian horror, it instead set its sporadic sights on the European arthouse. Unsurprisingly, this brought mixed returns. Sweden’s Let the Right One In became the better-than-average Let Me In in 2010, but the attempt at the New French Extremity’s Martyrs in 2015 has been (most likely for its own good) buried under a rug. Luca Guadagnino’s sprawling 2018 reimagining of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria, a co-production between Italy and the United States, is something of an outlier. It was an arthouse remake of an English-language, Italian giallo film, which managed to be even less accessible to American audiences than the original. Still, Guadagnino demonstrated, for better and occasionally for worse, the best, simplest mindset when approaching any adaptation: Make it entirely your own.

And here we finally come to Goodnight Mommy, a puzzling adaptation itself. It indulges in the worst impulses of visual language one might think of when considering how an American director would approach adapting a cold, minimalist German art film. It brings very little, if anything at all, to the table. I noted one affectingly eerie shot and an unsettling jump scare. But overall, nuance is forgone in favor of making sure the audience always understands exactly what is going on, which sacrifices the original’s far more effective and sophisticated restraint, uncanny tone and negligible reliance on dialogue. Here, lead twins Elias and Lucas (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) are chatty to the point that, as is often the case with child actors, the brothers’ acting abilities are mostly grating. Maybe it’s that the original’s Lukas and Elias Schwarz are better actors. Or, maybe it’s that the Austrian film doesn’t give them as many opportunities to talk, instead allowing the children space to emote physically.

As is the case with perennial questionable-decision-making actor Naomi Watts, she is giving 100%. Watts rarely, if ever, gives a poor performance in a poor film, but in the same vein as the talkative brothers, so too does their mother (Watts) go overboard on the chatter. Where 2014’s Mother (Susanne Wuest) is, from the jump, a stern parental figure with few words and an imposing presence, Watts is first depicted in a flashback cellphone video as a model mother. Exceedingly soft and compassionate to her boys, she used to sing them a lullaby (“You Are My Sunshine”) before bed. It’s an unnecessary bit of backstory, and it makes her melodramatic jump to an abusive tyrant one that borders on cartoonishly nonsensical. Where the Mother’s actions were once cryptic but logical if you know the story’s twist ending, it’s now totally unclear whether her abuse is pure delusion on part of the children or not. Otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense.

For me, Goodnight Mommy was the perfect illustration of why I (and others, I’m sure) tend to bristle at a horror film getting Americanized. Even Guadagnino’s Suspiria—while admirable and interesting in its own right—displays similar tendencies as Goodnight Mommy. Chiefly, a proclivity for excess where limitation would be far more affecting. Argento’s Suspiria is a horror classic because of the lacking plot and reliance on style. In reductive terms, Suspiria ’77 is “vibes-based.” Through its constantly creeping score by prog rock band Goblin, sumptuous Technicolor lighting and cinematography, and the persistent framing of would-be victims and our hero, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), as encircled by overbearing architecture and open, vulnerable spaces, we feel just as exposed and unsafe as the women in the film. We don’t really need to know anything more than that the dancers of the Tanz Dance Akademie are in peril at the hand of an omnipotent, supernatural threat. Suspiria ’77 is scary because the danger is everywhere.

Horror is atmospheric. And though certainly not a catch-all (last year’s Malignant succeeds in large part due to its bonkers plot), what tends to be the most important is that the film gets under our skin. How else is it going to give us nightmares, beyond jump scares that jolt in the moment but don’t linger past the theater doors? Thus, it’s embarrassing how Watts is practically speaking directly to the audience by the film’s conclusion once the twist is revealed, the filmmakers using her as a mouthpiece to make sure we all comprehend exactly what happened. And yet, one of my friends at the screening relayed to us later that night that he overheard one audience member exasperatedly saying that they still didn’t understand what they had just watched.

But their experience seems more symptomatic of American cinema’s longstanding tendency to coddle and pander than this person simply being too dumb to watch an embarrassingly obvious film. Films are test-screened for audiences prior to release, and complicated, confusing plot details are frequently done away with in favor of straightforward, easy-to-digest information that keeps the plot moving and moviegoers content instead of challenged. The idea is that if a movie is easier to understand, more people will see it and more money will be made. It doesn’t always work out that way, but the bottom line is that this is what the American film industry has been conditioning their audiences to want out of their films, made even more glaring in recent years as the industry has metastasized into an exposition-delivery machine. Hollywood is insistent on proving that it doesn’t want to make things better for its audiences, only easier. Why would Goodnight Mommy be any different?

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.