Allow me to begin with a seemingly irrelevant story from my own life.
Back in 2007, my friends and I lived in a gorgeous three-bedroom house in midtown Detroit. My roommate, Lindsay, had many cats—a cat for every person, at least, and none of them were allowed to go outside. This represented a sharp learning curve for me. Always I lived with cats growing up, but they came in and out of the house at will and were half feral, really. So one night I came home late and—let's face it, drunk—to an empty house. Once again I'd forgotten my keys. "To hell with it," I said, and I kicked out the screen window and climbed inside into the living room. Of course, the cow-colored cat went out into the world through the hole I'd made and was promptly hit by a car and killed.
It was my fault and I felt awful, but it seemed as though Lindsay had chosen to reserve her judgment. "I know you didn't mean for that to happen," she said.
The next day I came home and noticed a large, conspicuous box on the coffee table.
"What's in the box?" I said.
"It's a present for you," Lindsay said.
"I doubt that," I said.
"No, I'm kidding. There's a dead cat in the box."
Of this I was somehow even more skeptical. I'd assumed the cat was scraped off the pavement and promptly buried.
"No, but really," I said. "What's in the box?"
"It's a present for you," she said.
"No it's not," I said.
"You're right. It's a dead cat," she said. "Have a look."
Naturally I thought of Schrodinger's cat, and I wondered if somehow the box contained both a cat and a present at the same time. In the end, I couldn't take the not knowing and I looked. Inside that box I found the stiff, terrible corpse of the cat my negligence had killed. And this, my friends, is precisely the kind of suspenseful terror that awaits you in the horror masterpiece, Goodnight Mommy, by Austrian filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz.
The film belongs to Lukas and Elias, 9-year-old identical twins who live with their mother in a stark, chilly home nestled deep in the Austrian countryside. We first meet the boys playing alone together in the cornfields. Inside, their mother waits for them with her back turned from across the room. When she turns around, we see her entire face in bandages, complete with bruising around the eyes and what must be blood collecting around her nose and chin. The twins are afraid of her and we can't help but pick up on their cues. The circumstantial evidence mounts until the twins conclude: This woman is not our mother.
To say anything else would be the same as opening the box for you. I didn't know a thing about this film going in, and in the end, I was grateful for the surprise. American films have spoiled us with their incessant need to overexplain. Here, the revelations come little by little, and our alliances shift slowly and unexpectedly. The score doesn't tell you how to feel. In fact, it barely exists except for an occasional buzzing that seems as though it's coming from inside your own head. You won't find a better film to satisfy your Halloween bloodlust than Goodnight Mommy. And not to lay it on too thickly, but it's true: Unwrap this picture and you may or may not find a dead cat inside.
Goodnight Mommy opens at the Roxy Fri., Oct. 16.