It might be unfair to compare remakes to their source films, but it’s also unavoidable for people who care about movies. While the common Hollywood lore says American audiences refuse to read subtitles, and English-language remakes open the film to broader audiences, it’s also true that a certain portion of the audience for any remake is made up of fans who want to see what a film has gained or lost in a second translation to the screen.
Remakes often lose something in the update process, but horror films seem to suffer more than most. There are outliers, like Let the Right One In’s competent American remake Let Me In. But the reason that one works well only calls attention to the missteps of other remakes. Let Me In pulls from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s source novel as much as it takes from the original Swedish film. It maintains the original’s mood and tension, but The Batman and Cloverfield director Matt Reeves also didn’t set out to pay homage to Let the Right One In. Though his film isn’t as unwaveringly brilliant as the imported version of the story, Let Me In is a worthy horror film unto itself.
But sometimes remakes go spectacularly wrong. On the extreme end of the spectrum, there’s a new poster child for how not to remake a movie: the American version of Goodnight Mommy.
The original Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy was released in 2015 after a long, heralded festival run across the globe. The debut narrative feature from writer-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz is a brazen, unflinching horror film coming from a country not known for its horror industry. The Austrian cinematic landscape isn’t completely free from the dark side of film, but it’s more firmly known for comedy and historic dramas. Goodnight Mommy surprised horror fans with its origins — but it also shocked them with its extremity. Horror audiences are accustomed to creepy kids and mysterious events, but Goodnight Mommy pushed those ideas much further than the norm. Though the film (like the remake) is easily spoiled, it’s sufficient to say that its kids are creepy enough and the ending dark enough to shake even jaded horror aficionados.
When the English-language remake was announced for Goodnight Mommy, the biggest question looming was whether the new film would go as hard and end as nihilistically as the original. Not only does the remake lack the gumption to even approach the original film in terms of terror and on-screen pain, it doesn’t really work as a film in its own right.
The new version stars Naomi Watts as the titular Mommy. With the English-language remakes The Ring and Funny Games under her belt, Watts may have seemed like an easy choice for the lead of yet another American reboot of an international horror hit. The remake’s shortcomings aren’t due to her lack of craft or effort — the issues lie solely in the writing and directing.
Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti play twins Elias and Lucas, who have just been dropped off at their mother’s Connecticut farmhouse after she apparently separates from their father. The two boys seem playful and a bit cautious, until they see their mother for the first time on this visit. Mother (who is never given a name in the film) is wearing a huge bandage across her whole head, resembling a white balaclava. The boys are both alarmed at first, but they loosen up a little as they can see she’s making an effort to win them over, and they settle into their new family structure. That first night, after the boys have been tucked into their bunkbed, they talk about the fact that something is off with their mom.
In this moment, Goodnight Mommy completely drops the ball, and it never picks it back up. Not only does the film show its card on the creep factor of Mother nearly an hour earlier than the original, it establishes the fact that these boys will spend the movie talking constantly, voiding any sense of tension or ambiguity throughout the film. This take on Goodnight Mommy leans heavily on exposition. Director Matt Sobel (a director and producer on Netflix’s Brand New Cherry Flavor) makes little to no attempt to establish an atmosphere, tension, or any kind of terrifying ambiguity. For fans of the original, the loss of everything that made the original version frightening is devastating. There’s no sense of dread in this horror movie, because these dang kids won’t shut up and just let the audience experience what should be the quiet trepidation of living with a potential monster.
Add to all of this the fact that these boys just aren’t weird. Twins are a major horror trope, capable of igniting the uncanny and bringing about uneasy feelings in film without too much explanation. (Just look at Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.) But Sobel’s remake, scripted by Kyle Warren (a writer-producer on Fox’s Lethal Weapon TV series), completely ignores any and all character development with Elias and Lucas. The original version of these twins kept cockroaches as pets, made strange masks, and tingled viewers’ spines by communicating wordlessly. These two are just normal kids, or at least normal when they aren’t being overly verbose.
Heaped on top of that are myriad disappointing or confusing factors that span the entire film. There are strange, misplaced sexual moments with Mother preening at a mirror while Elias spies on her, angry outbursts from both Mother and the children that aren’t consistent with the characters or circumstances, and even a few cheap jump scares that lead nowhere. Not even to mention the nearly bloodless ending, which is both poorly filmed and takes as a given that the Ice Bucket Challenge is analogous to the exceptionally unnerving body horror in the original movie.
2014’s Goodnight Mommy is one of the best horror films of the last decade, but nearly every element that contributed to that quality has been ignored or reversed in this disappointment of a remake. Not all remakes are unequivocal failures, but this one is. The original version is streaming free on Vudu and Tubi. The new version isn’t worth watching, even at that same price point.
Goodnight Mommy debuts on Prime Video on Sept. 16.