Watching the remake of a horror movie is a lot like watching a magic trick after you know how it’s done. You may have lost your sense of wonder at the trick itself, but if they’re doing it right, you’ve got an even deeper appreciation for the skill and showmanship of the magician.
The words “if they’re doing it right” are doing a lot of heavy lifting in that paragraph. Matt Sobel’s remake of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s “Goodnight Mommy” tries to pull off the same mysteries and revelations from the original, but for some reason Sobel is doing it without the majority of the scares.
So much of the film’s brutality has been removed in favor of melodrama and CGI fake-outs that it doesn’t matter that the cast is bringing their A-game. The game has already been called due to lack of interest.
The plots of the two films are incredibly similar: Sobel’s version begins with Mother (Naomi Watts) putting her twin sons, Elias (Cameron Crovetti) and Lukas (Nicholas Crovetti), to bed with a tender rendition of “You Are My Sunshine,” but pluralized to “Sunshines” because they’re twins. All seems happy and warm, but the next time we see the family, fear has infected them.
Elias and Lukas are dropped off at Mom’s house by their Father (Peter Hermann, “Blue Bloods”), who’s afraid to go inside and face his ex-wife. And then the kids go inside they find the place practically abandoned, food rotting on a chair, and their mother — if that’s who she really is — alone in the darkness, wearing a mask that covers her entire face, claiming she’s just had a medical procedure that prevents them from looking at her.
Mommy has rules, like no visitors, no play dates and no entering quite a few rooms of the house. And while at first Elias and Lukas make the most of this weird visit, they quickly come to suspect that Mommy — who refuses to sing their favorite song, and has torn up the pictures they made for her — might not be their real mother at all.
Sobel (“Take Me to the River”) gets the most mileage out of the film’s first half, where the mystery mounts and the children’s imagination runs rampant. If the children are right, and their mother is an imposter, all the signs are there to support them. If the children are wrong, they are still in deep trouble, because that means their mother is enduring some sort of severe mental-health crisis and is lashing out at them. Either way, the children have every reason to be frightened.
Watts, who has starred in quite a few horror remakes by now (“The Ring,” “Funny Games,” and the truly bizarre “The Shaft”), plays her role beautifully. If she’s a monster, she’s an ineffably bizarre creature with hate in her heart. If she’s really their mother, she’s an understandably pained individual enduring a tragic break-up, the strain of a toxic career that demands she get plastic surgery to remain relevant, and children who cannot connect with her and see her as a beast. She manages to balance these two vastly different characters masterfully, so the film could easily work either way.
And then of course there’s Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti (“Witch Hunt”), identical twins whose natural rapport always reads on screen. Mommy makes Elias endure the brunt of her psychological and, eventually, physical torture, and Cameron Crovetti impressively captures the fear and betrayal and sorrow like an old pro. Lukas seems to be the emotionally stronger of the two, but also the one with a meaner streak, playing violent video games and teasing his brother. When the danger strikes, it’s Lukas who seems most likely to protect them, but Elias has unexpected reserves of gumption and imagination.
But after Sobel’s initial set-up, the “Goodnight Mommy” flounders. New sequences have found their way into the adapted screenplay (by Kyle Warren, TV’s “Lethal Weapon”) and while some are creepy, others rely on imagery so unconvincingly computer-generated they cannot be taken seriously. It was a tightly constructed story from the start, and loosening the threads has done the remake no favors.
What’s worse is that, when the film tries to kick into high gear, it stalls out completely. The confrontations between the twins and their “mother” have no bite, no menace and no sense of escalating terror. The filmmakers saw the original, horrifying film and decided not only to pull their punches in the remake, but also barely to make contact.
If you’ve never seen the original “Goodnight Mommy,” you might not realize just how much tension is truly missing from this remake and how very far Sobel’s film utterly refuses to go. The film we’ve got is interested in the psychological underpinnings of the story but not in the terrifying ways they could play out, leaving the audience with uniformly excellent performances yet very little intensity and hardly any showmanship.
Nobody will be impressed that you caught a bullet with your bare hands if they can tell it was fired from a Nerf gun. And sure enough, this remake of “Goodnight Mommy” has been nerfed, big time.
“Goodnight Mommy” launches globally Friday, Sept. 16, on Amazon Prime Video.