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She’s Gone

A tale of anti-Oedipal terror unfolds in Austrian thriller Goodnight Mommy

For the most part, the genre of horror has been a much-maligned cinematic ghetto populated almost exclusively by male directors, and God bless ’em all: They’ve titillated and tantalized and torn us apart to the best of their abilities over the years, some with more sophistication and some with less, mining every sexualized psychosis and reptilian yelp under the blood moon.

Of course, there have been notable exceptions to this geeky gender gap (Claire Denis, Kathryn Bigelow, Antonia Bird), but they’ve been so far and few between that they mostly serve to reinforce the brute dickishness of the genre. I don’t mean that in a bad way; phallocentric visions of hyper-potency — from slasher flicks to monster mayhem — are legitimately terrifying, and they reveal an undercurrent of fear that delves into the violent, vulnerable core of masculinity.

Times change, however. The finest horror film of 2014, The Babadook, was by Australian director Jennifer Kent, and it was a doozy. Kent’s film, about a single mother and her child being stalked by a shadow creature from a children’s storybook, turned the tables on the classic theme of the demon seed, focusing on one woman’s parental anxieties about protecting her kid, mostly from herself. The film was complex, emotionally resonant and deeply spooky.

And now there’s Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian psycho-thriller written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Much like The Babadook, this film burrows under the skin of the mother-child relationship to expose terrors that can only be called existential.

Returning home from plastic surgery after an accident, her face almost completely bandaged, convalescing Mother (Susanne Wuest) deals with her twin sons, Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz), a pair of whispering confidants who grow increasingly suspicious that mom is not actually mom. A quietly bizarre and increasingly disturbing game of cat-and-mouse ensues, as the twins — isolated in a big house in the Austrian countryside — begin to interrogate the authenticity of their own parent, who spends most of her time in bed, behind closed doors.

Almost anything else I might say would spoil this film. In Goodnight Mommy, the Freudian paradigm is inverted and then smashed, with devastating results — call it anti-Oedipal terror. As Kent did in The Babadook, the directors here — channeling the chilly and menacing formalism of Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke — ratchet up the suspense by turning the (pro)creative instinct inside out, making a monster of nature and nurture both. (Bijou Metro)