The American remake lacks the horror of the original
Remaking successful international productions, especially European ones, is a long-standing Hollywood tradition. In most cases, we end up with a rehash that loses any sharpness of the original; Something almost always gets lost in the attempt to make it more palatable to American audiences—especially with thrillers and satires. Out of diabolical and vanilla heaven in the 1990s to recent times Downhill (2020), a remake of Swedish satire Force majeure (2014), the list goes on. Later this year, Tom Hanks will star in A man named Ottoa remake of another Swedish film, A man named Ove (2015). This week’s entry is Good night mom, based on the 2014 Austrian arthouse hit of the same name, written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. This version was written by Kyle Warren and directed by Matt Sobel.
The setup has the traces of Gothic Horror. Two twin brothers (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) are taken to a country house by their father to stay with their mother (Naomi Watts). But not everything is good. Her face is covered with bandages. She avoids spending time with them. In the little time she spends with them, she is aggressive, yells at them to behave and refuses to sing them a lullaby. The brothers, who are very close, begin to suspect that she is an impostor who may have taken her mother’s place.
The story mainly takes place in this large mansion. The boys run around mischievously while their mother hides her face and behaves in ways they find disturbing. Even when she dances in front of the mirror, Watts is shot and lit up to look spooky. The audience first looks at her from the boy’s perspective and anticipates every little gesture. But the film’s angle shifts to show her side. For a limited thriller like this to work, the suspense has to build steadily to the big crescendos. Unfortunately, Warren and Sobel undermine that by throwing out obvious clues to the big reveal. Despite loud, menacing music and camera work that always seems to be on the lookout for clues, thrills are few and far between.
The original Austrian film had shock value and genuine, gruesome horror. This new Americanized version grinds the edges of the narrative at every opportunity. The three main characters are drawn more sympathetically, which damages the tension between them. Audience loyalty is meant to waver between the two sides, but in this version neither side goes to extremes and the result is a lack of audience investment. When not shrugging one’s shoulders, the film’s theatrics elicit laughs, although they really should be horrific. Something’s up. A story about a mother and her children who do increasingly horrible things to each other should be terrifying. Instead, it’s ridiculous. The film never comes alive.
The Crovettis also play the twins too likable to be truly scary. In fact, they were even more alarming in their previous roles as Nicole Kidman’s sons on HBO Big little lies. Watts is engaging and suitably intense. She spends half of the film hidden behind a mask, relying on her voice and physicality to convey how this woman is feeling. Unfortunately, their efforts don’t save the film. She’s stranded and helpless, a good performance undercut by a less than worthy film.
For an actress of her considerable talent and some influence in the industry, Watts continues to make confusing decisions. Another remake of a European art film after Funny Games (2007)? Another thriller in which she plays a mother after that The Desperate Hour (2021)? Another horror film about a woman in danger, mostly set in one location after The wolf hour (2019)? Even for the very few who saw these films, they all quickly faded from memory. It seems like she’s repeating the failures of her career instead of the hits.
The original film became a sensation by showing children doing terribly cruel things. It’s understandable to want to redesign it, but why remove the elements that made it unique? With Good night momadd another failure – not only to Watts’ filmography, but to the growing catalog of US remakes that are vastly inferior to their predecessors.