Naomi Watts headlined what is perhaps the greatest American remake of an international horror with the 2002 Gore Verbinski film The Ring. That cold classic took the then-original idea of its Japanese predecessor and updated it with a wholly original, genuinely creepy film filled with gorgeous, icy visuals and a wonderfully grand Hans Zimmer score. The film was a huge hit worldwide, earing $250 million (that’s $411 million adjusted for inflation) to become one of the highest-grossing horror films at the time, and Watts was crucial for its success.
Two decades and a bevy of American horror remakes later, Watts is starring in the Prime Video adaptation of a 2014 German film, Ich Seh, Ich Seh. If The Ring was a great example of how to remake a ‘foreign’ film for a worldwide audience, Goodnight Mommy is largely an example of how not to, diluting the brilliance of the original into an easily swallowed consumer product. The acting is excellent and the direction and cinematography are capable, but the end result is tame and tired.
Someone is Impersonating Mother in Goodnight Mommy
Goodnight Mommy has a minimalist plot and setting, and has essentially taken every detail from the original but translated it by way of dictionaries and disappointment. The film follows a pair of young twins who are dropped off to stay with their mother after a period of unexplained absence. The boys, Elias and Lucas (even their names are the same in this American remake), used to have a close relationship with their mother, who would sing You Are My Sunshine to them at bedtime every night. Now, she is distant, terse, and aggressive.
Exacerbating this is the mask-like surgical bandages worn by the woman (credited only as Mother). Slits for orifices expose her lips, nostrils, and eyes, with the rest of her face obfuscated by the white gauze of the mask. She’s an actress, or perhaps she was an actress; Mother has gotten plastic surgery of some kind, perhaps hoping to reclaim her status as a star with a smoother, stretched face. She walks around the expansive house in her silk nightgown, looking like Christiane from Eyes Without a Face.
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Between the mask and her behavior, along with a curious evening in which she refuses to sing You Are My Sunshine, the boys begin to suspect that she isn’t their mother at all. They sneak around the large house, eavesdropping on phone conversations where Mother whispers worrying words like, “I’m tired of pretending,” and they tip-toe into forbidden areas, strangely designated as off-limits by Mother. They worry more and more that this is not Mother, and that she’s getting dangerous.
Goodnight Mommy is About the Capgras Delusion
The idea of loved ones and formerly familiar faces not actually being themselves, and somehow being replaced, has been called the Capgras syndrome for one century, ever since psychiatrist Joseph Capgras coined the term in 1923. It’s a delusional misidentification syndrome that has a lot of philosophical and dramatic weight and has been used in everything from the four Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies to Star Wars (in the Fate of the Jedi series of books).
The Capgras delusion is a haunting narrative device that can serve many purposes, and it’s used in Goodnight Mommy to portray the sad distance and uncertainty that forms between parents and children as they age, and between people terrorized by trauma. Like many children who haven’t come of age, Elias and Lucas don’t yet understand how a parent can become cold, bitter, and cruel, so it makes more sense to imagine that there’s an imposter beneath the bandages. Then again, when she destroys their phone in the garbage disposal and charges at their door with a crowbar, maybe they’re right.
A Tame, PG Remake of a Disturbing Horror Movie
The original Austrian film visualized the Capgras delusion with a much colder, emotionless aesthetic reminiscent of some Michael Haneke films and the work of Ulrich Seidl (a producer on the film and the husband to one of its directors, who is himself embroiled in a scandal). Its hyper-modern architecture and use of white felt threatening, and its descent into utter horror was raw and disarming.
The director of this remake, Matt Sobel, has lost much of the disturbing detachment of the original film in attempting to make it more palatable for the American market. Though he frames some nice compositions and creates some good dolly shots, the aesthetic is much less haunting here, which only makes the film’s dilution of the original horrors that much weaker. Sobel’s work on Brand New Cherry Flavor is riveting in comparison.
While the original Goodnight Mommy was glacial in its initial pacing, it became surprisingly dark, graphic, and intense in a manner many compared to the New French Extremity movement. The new Goodnight Mommy is essentially a PG retelling of the original, and while that might open it up to more audiences, it completely shatters the shock and suspense. Where the Austrian film had considerable bite, Sobel’s film merely chews.
There are countless great horror films that aren’t rated R (coincidentally, The Ring is one of them, along with Insidious, Drag Me to Hell, Jaws, and Ouija: Origin of Evil), but Goodnight Mommy only really works if taken to its chilling extreme, something this remake resolutely refuses to do. There are plenty of spoilers in Goodnight Mommy that shouldn’t be broached, but suffice it to say, the American remake removes much of the disturbing fright of these revelations.
Naomi Watts and the Crovetti Brothers Are Great in a Weak Film
The young brothers Nicholas and Cameron Crovetti are very good as Lucas and Elias, respectively. They’ve both done great work in Big Little Lies, Cameron has been excellent in The Boys, and Nicholas is starring in the highly-anticipated remake of Salem’s Lot, and their talent and natural chemistry is obvious here. However, their charm and warmth doesn’t necessarily fit with what Goodnight Mommy attempts to do; like the rest of the film, they needed more of an edge.
Naomi Watts is excellent, of course, but that’s hardly a surprise. When David Lynch helped her rise to stardom by casting her as the lead in the great film Mulholland Drive, he told The Los Angeles Times, “I saw someone that I felt had a tremendous talent, and I saw someone who had a beautiful soul, an intelligence — possibilities for a lot of different roles, so it was a beautiful full package.”
Like Ethan Hawke in the recent film The Black Phone, Watts is able to express herself and be intimidating even with her face obscured throughout many scenes. She uses her body and her voice masterfully, as she always does, and is the best reason to watch Goodnight Mommy. While Susanne Wuest was great, watching this American version makes one wish that Watts could go back in time and star in the original film.
Goodnight Mommy and the Inferior Remake Are Available Now
These are, for the most part, the only three actors in Goodnight Mommy, give or take two police officers (Crystal Lucas-Perry and the forehead king of Russian Doll, Jeremy Bobb). As such, the film is a kind of chamber drama and not the type of thing most American audiences really go for, so it’s odd that they’d tone the viciousness down so much with the remake. Without the menace and intensity of the original, it’s simply sleepy.
A remake doesn’t have to be compared to the original film, and doesn’t need to replicate it in order to work; The Ring showed this well. Then again, if a film takes the exact same plot, setting, and characters (without even renaming them) as another movie, then it better do it very well and add something special. Otherwise, comparisons are obligatory — when a store’s generic product is the exact replica of a brand name, they feature the word “compare to” in order to indicate what they’re replicating, and it feels the exact same way with Goodnight Mommy. In conversations, the saying goes, ‘If you’re not going to say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’ In the world of remakes, perhaps the axiom should be, ‘If you’re not going to make anything new, don’t make anything at all.’
While viewers would be advised to seek out the original 2014 film (streaming on Tubi and Vudu), Goodnight Mommy is now streaming on Prime Video from Animal Kingdom, Playtime, and Amazon Studios.