Even Naomi Watts Can’t Save Goodnight Mommy’s Tepid Remake

NAOMI WATTS stars in GOODNIGHT MOMMY Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video © 2022 Amazon Content Services LLC

One might reasonably wonder, why remake Goodnight Mommy? The 2014 Austrian psychological horror drama isn’t exactly unknown: it enjoyed a long festival run, critical acclaim, and solid box office worldwide. Aside from a few rare exceptions, remakes of foreign horror films frequently disappoint. Curiously, the original Goodnight Mommy is one of those films where the proverbial “one-inch barrier,” as Bong Joon Ho so adroitly called English-language subtitles for English-speaking viewers, scarcely exists: the film’s visual language is so expressly cinematic it hardly relies on dialogue at all. The original is a marvel of maternal horror, relying on recognizable genre tropes while providing a surprise ending that (though foreshadowed all along) had the internet buzzing with interpretive flurry and lots of Google-searches for Capgras Syndrome.

So what’s to be gained from a 2022 remake? A note-for-note transcription? A radical reinvention? Amazon Prime Studios’ Goodnight Mommy is neither. It borrows the story beats from the original: two young twins Elias and Lukas (played by twin brothers Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) are dropped off at their mother’s stony, isolated rural house by their father (Peter Herrmann), the parents apparently uneasily separated. At first nowhere to be found, their unnamed mother (Naomi Watts) makes a startling appearance in an unsettling post-surgery face bandage and with a set of conditions—explicit Proppian interdictions to be violated—the boys are to follow. Something seems off, and it’s not just their mom’s masked appearance.

A woman in a post-surgical mask reads to two twin boys in bed.

As the boys ponder her (Watts’ character is unnamed) odd, at times menacing, behavior, they begin to suspect that perhaps she is not their mother at all. And the deeper their nascent investigation, the more erratic—and to them, the more terrifying—her behavior becomes. So they must, the boys determine, take drastic action. All of this parallels, at least in a loose narrative sense, the original. But in the 2014 Austrian film, writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala leaned hard into the visual and narrative tropes of maternal horror. The twins’ own behavior was equally creepy, obsessed with adolescent fixations (insects, glue) gone bizarro; the creepy-twin, dark-forest, disturbing-mask, and mysterious-doppelgänger tropes all conspiring to disturb and disorient viewers until its shocking third-act revelation.

Two young twin boys stand in a field.

This new version is far, far less disturbing. Director Matt Sobel claims he “didn’t want to add [his] name to the long list of filmmakers who have tried and failed to remake successful European arthouse films,” but his and screenwriter Kyle Warren’s approach may have accomplished exactly that. Sobel and Warren largely avoid the original’s creepy horror to focus more on the relationship between one of the twins and his mother. Here, the brothers do not seem at all strange—just genuinely curious and distressed—and the mother plausibly rational if easily agitated. Dread does not lurk, and insects and glue (use your imagination if you have not seen the original) do not figure.

In place of the silently creeping camera and affecting imagery of Franz and Fiala’s taut, taciturn original is an ungainfully expository talkfest between Lukas and Elias or between Elias and the mother. Neither the large, stylish house nor the adjacent barn are at all creepy, and the forest is underutilized. Watts’ mask is shed halfway through—a nod, perhaps, to the actress’s own recognizable stardom. She performs a striptease in front of her mirror as Elias watches, uneasily, to no real point other than to provide a small bit of characterization (she plays an actress of some modest renown) and highlight her lithe figure. Whatever oedipal urges such a scene might intimate are quickly forgotten.

I will say this for Naomi Watts. She is giving it a go. The estimable Australian actress, now 53 but familiar to international fans for only about two decades since Mulholland Dr (2001), has enjoyed a remarkable career, balancing blockbuster franchise work with arthouse drama, earning an Academy Award nomination in the process. Like for many film actresses as they age, for Watts the prime roles recently have tended to wane a bit: once past a certain point, the industry seems largely uninterested in their vitality. Films like Sunset Blvd, The Star, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? simultaneously lamented and exploited female stars’ aging, but decades later the problem still persists: what kinds of mainstream roles exist for women in their fifties and beyond?

And Watts is no stranger to the English-language international horror-film remake, having starred in the 2002 box office and critical hit The Ring (remaking the Japanese film). Here, Watts gamely gives the role her all: even in her post-surgical balaclava she is a recognizable force, and without it, genuinely convincing as a woman desperate to convince the boys of her own identity. But like in her other recent films Infinite Storm and The Desperate Hour, her steely will and action-hero physique are, sadly, no match for a script that is undercooked and direction that is unseasoned. In each of these and in her other 2021 starring role This Is the Night, Watts has served as an executive producer; it’s been some time since she has found a role with a script and a style to match her talent.

A masked woman grabs a boy by the shoulders as another boy gasps.

Certainly, such is not the case with this tepid remake of Goodnight Mommy. And it’s hard to know to whom, exactly, this film will appeal. For any readers who have not seen the 2014 original, please do so: it’s freely available on Tubi and other services. It so far exceeds this film in ingenuity and execution the latter barely deserves mention in the same space. For those familiar with Franz and Fiala’s film, Sobel and Warren’s pales in comparison by such a degree there is little point other than academic comparison.

Perhaps you saw the original and thought to yourself: “This film is too good at horror. That needs to be tamped down a bit.” Or “what this film needs is fewer insects and less glue, but more striptease and waterboarding.” Or “I wish Naomi Watts was under those bandages.”  You would be alone, but you would have gotten your wish. For everyone else, this Goodnight Mommy, neither a radical remake nor a faithful transposition, simply has little reason to exist—other than, perhaps, to keep its estimable star gainfully employed and in the public eye in the hope that something better soon comes along.

I, for one, am hoping it does.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Executive Editor and owner of Film Obsessive. A retired professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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