Naomi Watts is a master of slow-burning terror.
Horror unfurls on her face like the vivid contrasts of Hollywood Golden Age lighting.
But in “Goodnight Mommy,” the Oscar nominee plays a famous actor who has recently undergone plastic surgery, so her face is almost entirely covered in bandages.
Healing from the procedures is the least of her worries in the New Jersey-filmed thriller premiering Friday, Sept. 16 on Amazon Prime Video. The psychological horror film, directed by Matt Sobel (Netflix series “Brand New Cherry Flavor”) is a remake of the 2014 Austrian movie of the same name.
At the start of “Goodnight Mommy,” Watts’ character — simply called Mother — reunites with her twin sons, Elias and Lukas, played by identical twins Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti (Nicole Kidman’s sons and Meryl Streep’s grandsons in ”Big Little Lies”).
The boys are glad to see their mom after an extended period staying with their father (Peter Hermann), even if they are a bit taken aback that she has the bandages on (she apparently didn’t tell them she would be going under the knife).
“It’s still me under here,” she assures them. “Mommy just had a little procedure, a surgery.”
“I needed a change,” she tells the twins. “Fresh start.”
There are some ground rules for her recovery period: They have to keep the shades drawn, and both her room and the barn outside are off limits — minor inconveniences.
Soon, though, they sense something is very off. Mother is suddenly quick to anger, given to violently busting down doors. She’s also picked up a smoking habit and tosses her son’s artwork in the trash without a second thought.
Where is the woman who used to sing “You Are My Sunshine” to them before bed every night? When they ask for the song, she rejects them — they’re too old for all that now, she says.
Elias tries to take comfort in an old video on his phone showing Mother singing them the song. She retaliates by shredding the phone in the trash disposal.
Lukas has an idea. Maybe the Mother who returned from surgery isn’t Mother at all, but some wicked imposter.
They scrutinize the woman’s appearance for clues to unravel the mystery behind the bandages. All the while, Mother is on their tail, locking them in their room, spraying them with cold water and doing other decidedly un-Mother-like things.
The movie, which mostly takes place in the confines of the spacious family home, filmed for 23 days at a house in Bedminster in the spring and summer of 2021. (Slight spoiler) A barn built for the movie was burned down in a pyrotechnic sequence.
However, if you want to see real fireworks, watch the original.
The first “Goodnight Mommy,” also known as “Ich Seh, Ich Seh” (“I See, I See” in German) is superior to the American adaptation in almost every way. Even if you figure out what’s really going on early in that film, it doesn’t necessarily ruin the story, especially the disarming way the movie creates shadowy dread in broad daylight.
In the European film, it’s not the what, but the how.
The same can’t necessarily be said of the remake, because while the story hinges upon the same idea, or twist, everything else pretty much falls away once you realize what it is.
Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala wrote and directed the 2014 “Goodnight Mommy,” Austria’s submission to the Oscars for best foreign language film in 2015 (it wasn’t nominated). That movie stars Lukas and Elias Schwarz (who play Lukas and Elias) in mesmerizing performances opposite Susanne Wuest (Mother).
The film introduces its 9-year-old blond twins as a symbiotic pair frolicking in nature — weaving through a corn field outside their country home in a kind of cheeky “Children of the Corn” reference.
They play hide and seek. They jump on caked soil that bounces above unseen water. Yet somehow in the innocence of it all, there is a kernel of terror.
The whole time they’re playing, there’s an unsettling silence, like when one of the boys approaches the dark void of a tunnel, bringing to mind the womb-like transitional space in the German Netflix series “Dark” (which ran from 2017 to 2020).
Lukas whispers to Elias, who carries the message on to Wuest’s Mother. Like Watts, she seems on edge just occupying the same space as her boys.
These aren’t overwrought child performances — they seem like real-time reactions, which makes them all the more frightening. It’s not a put-on. There are no ghosts in the TV or monsters under the bed.
Key to the film’s slow build are the mostly wordless scenes where Lukas and Elias travel outside their home, whiling away their summer discovering and unearthing. Both there and later, inside the house, there is a preoccupation with death and dead animals.
In man vs. nature, nature always takes its course. And sometimes, survival itself can seem like a perversion — or a distortion.
When Mother shows up in bandages, barking orders — here, she’s a minor celebrity from Austrian TV — a simple guessing game played in the middle of the day proves more effective than the bitter exchanges in the American adaptation. The twins put a note on their mom’s head — they want her to guess herself. Even with an abundance of clues, she can’t. Chills!
The real monster is inside the house, and despite their worst nightmares, it might just have nothing to do with Mother.
In the new “Goodnight Mommy,” Franz and Fiala served as executive producers alongside Watts and Sobel. The Crovetti brothers’ Lukas and Elias often seem less like frightened children forced to cope with a possible intruder than young adults sustaining emotionally scarring arguments with a newly abusive mother.
Watts’ Mother lashes out early and often. She is clearly at the end of her tether, so we just know something else has driven her there long before her reunion with the boys. Their related nightmares, imagining the decrepit horrors that await under those bandages, take on a decidedly more fiendish look. But the film’s approach to both dialogue — the screenplay is from Kyle Warren (Fox’s “Lethal Weapon” series) — and tone makes for performances that are much less visceral than the original.
The twins pad around an airy home where light isn’t lacking, even though the bandaged woman wants the shades closed.
With both films, the homes are paeans to modern architecture and design: the European house an exercise in minimalism, and the American home a similar space with high ceilings and a bit more rustic flair. Both houses are also without close neighbors, set on a frontier with nature. In Sobel’s movie, the home is positioned on a field of Somerset County green in the middle of humming cicadas.
The new movie would have been better off taking a cue from the primal feel of the original film and telling a story around the sounds of nature.
Instead, we get a classically over-the-top horror score that preempts scares instead of letting them build. The well-intentioned music from composer Alex Weston (”The Farewell”) results in connect-the-dots storytelling that sucks suspense out of the room.
Yes, it can be scary when Watts rattles a locked door (or pries it open with a crowbar), but that’s often because we’re seeing the action from the boys’ point of view.
The actual scare is in not seeing what’s on the other side of the door. The twist in this movie is a threshold, too, and once you cross it, the story should be energized — not flattened.
“I just want things to be back to how they were before,” Elias tells his mother.
He’s speaking to the central conflict of the story, one driven by trauma, grief and the sense that nothing will ever be OK again, despite Mother’s vain attempt at a “fresh start.”
“Goodnight Mommy” (90 minutes), rated R for some language, will be released Friday, Sept. 16 on Amazon Prime Video.
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Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed at @AmyKup on Twitter.