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Family Ties (and Terror): How an Aunt and Her Nephew Made One of 2015's Creepiest Movies

You're not likely to see a film more disturbing and squirm-inducing this year than Austria's GOODNIGHT MOMMY. You're also not likely to hear a more unique filmmaking backstory.

Some youngsters look up to their aunts and uncles for emotional support, or the kind of impartial understanding that a parent can’t deliver. Austrian filmmaker Severin Fiala's relationship with his aunt Veronika Franz is a bit different than that. Today, they’re the co-directors of Goodnight Mommy, the beautifully crafted and immensely creepy film that’s ridden a wave of strong festival buzz en route to its official theatrical release this Friday, via RADiUS-TWC, the same distribution company behind the recent indie horror breakout It Follows. It should come as no surprise, then, that when Fiala was a teenager, he turned to Auntie Veronika to support his horror movie needs.

Fiala, now in his early 30s, hails from the small countryside town of Horn, where he grew up frequenting the one mom-and-pop video shop in town, renting as many movies as he could. While most of his peers were playing "robbers and gangsters," he’d use his uncle’s camera to make pretend movies about robbers and gangsters with some of his pals. But even as a kid, Fiala knew that his cinema education was limited to Horn’s humble resources. Particularly drawn to the horror genre, he had no choice but to watch German-dubbed versions of the scary movies he’d read about in newspapers and magazines.

Fiala’s filmic restrictions were compounded by the fact that his parents wouldn’t spring for cable television. "The film I watched most as a child was John Carpenter's Halloween," he recalls. “I didn’t have cable TV, so one night I saw that it was on, from the paper TV guide, and I asked my older cousin if she could tape it on VHS for me. But she missed the first 25 minutes. For me, Halloween was always dubbed in German, in a smaller frame ratio, wasn’t in good video quality, and was only 50 minutes long. I still loved it so much, though. I remember the first time I was able to see the whole movie; I couldn’t believe it—‘It’s longer than 50 minutes?'"

As a 14-year-old, Fiala figured out a way to finally watch the scary movies he’d always been desperate to see. Franz, who lived in the much larger and more artistically and culturally advanced city of Vienna, needed someone to babysit her eldest son on the weekends; a professional film critic, she traveled often for festivals and assignments. Their relation isn’t exactly blood-connected; Franz’s husband, Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl, is Fiala’s blood-related uncle. Yet Fiala was aware of Franz’s writing career and proposed a mutually beneficial deal for he and his aunt: instead of being paid in cash for babysitting, he’d only ask Franz to rent VHS tapes from Vienna’s stacked-up video store and watch the movies with him.

"In my small hometown, there was only one small video store and I’d quickly seen every movie available there," says Fiala. "When I started traveling to Vienna, I knew there were all kinds of movies available to watch on VHS there. That was my opportunity to see all the Friday the 13th movies, instead of only the first one over and over again.” Franz, who wasn’t necessarily a big horror fan at the time, used the arrangement to educate her nephew. “I kind of infiltrated other movies into his viewing schedules,” she says. “I agreed to watch all the Friday the 13th films and other horror films with him if he would then watch John Cassavettes’ films and other art films with me."

Even though she wasn’t as big of a horror buff as her nephew, Franz wasn’t exactly a frights-and-creeps novice. "I learned that Veronika knew about David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, and that’s when I was like, 'Whoa, someone else actually knows those guys?'" says Fiala. “My own parents weren’t interested in those filmmakers, so it was really exciting to have an aunt who was just as excited by guys like Cronenberg and Carpenter as I was. It felt great to have someone to look up to who also respected the filmmakers I loved."

In their discussions about filmmaking, Fiala and his older and wiser mentor would lament Austria’s lack of a horror output. Even today, with Goodnight Mommy giving their country its first official scary movie success story, they’re still discussing the issue. The only other Austrian horror film worth talking about, they believe, is Angst, the 1983 cult obscurity that was just reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by the genre boutique label Cult Epics. Shot with an up-close-and-personal POV, it’s one of the most unsettling serial killer movies ever made—and if Franz and Fiala had their way, it’d be more widely known.

"Angst is the only Austrian horror film we can really stand behind," says Franz. "When it first came out, it was such a scandal that the filmmaker, Gerard Kargl, never made another film again. It was received at an Austrian film festival with hatred and disgust, and that shocked him so badly that he gave up his filmmaking career. But it’s an amazing film both technically and creatively. It’s like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but made ten years earlier. Gerard Kargl could have been a great horror director and could have done a lot for Austrian horror had he kept making films."

Despite Fiala's genre-heavy cinematic schooling of sorts, he and Fiala didn’t initially set their behind-the-camera sights on horror. After Fiala's babysitting days were over, he and Franz continued to bond over cinema. He worked his way through film school while she continued to work as a critic, until 2010, when Franz’s budding relationship with a famously unpleasant Austrian actor named Peter Kern led to she and her nephew making their first film together: Kern, a documentary about the rotund and controversial thespian. At the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, in support of Kern, Franz and Fiala already had their first narrative feature in mind.

Their promotional efforts for Kern coincided with brainstorming and writing sessions for what would eventually become Goodnight Mommy. The film takes place solely on the secluded property of an Austrian actress, Marie-Catherine Metter (played by Susanne Wuest), who’s just returned home from a weeks-long plastic surgery procedure. Upon her arrival, her face all bandaged up and her attitude contentiously rough, she draws suspicions from her twin sons, Elias and Lukas (Elias Schwarz and Lukas Schwarz). The mother they’ve known and loved isn’t as cold as the one who’s back in their house; Lukas, the troublemaker of the duo, convinces Elias that the woman living in their home is an impostor, and that they must get her to admit her fake identity by any means necessary—beetles, crazy glue, torture, and body-modifying scissors included.

The idea for Goodnight Mommy hit Franz and Fiala after they’d watched episodes of Germany’s version of the reality show Extreme Makeover. "According to society’s standards, they’re not beautiful enough, so they get their hair done, their teeth done, and get completely new clothes," explains Franz. "They’re separated from their families for two months to get all of these operations done, and then they’re reunited on a red carpet. It’s supposed to be this magical television moment, but if you look at their children’s eyes, you know they’ve been waiting for their moms to return after such a long time. They don’t look happy when they see their moms for the first time—they look really irritated. In one episode I was watching, one little girl grabbed her daddy’s arm and said, 'That’s not my mom! Who is that person?'"

The notion to turn Extreme Makeover’s setup into horror movie fodder derived from one of Franz and Fiala’s earlier shared viewing experiences. "One of the films we watched together when I was younger was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and it really affected me because it’s the ultimate scary setup," says Fiala. "The people around you, who don’t look any different and still seem normal, may be aliens or changed for the worse. That’s something that our film is about: what makes you the person you are for everyone else? If your personality changes, are you then a different person to the people around you?"

It’s that attention to characterization that has pushed Goodnight Mommy’s acclaim well beyond just the genre community. Not unlike this year’s It Follows and The Babadook, it's exemplary of independent horror’s current resurgence, steered by an ongoing wellspring of knockout features that combine legitimate scares, deeply realized protagonists, and believably grounded situations with supernatural imagery. In Goodnight Mommy’s case, Fiala and Franz's multilayered screenplay delicately illustrates the psychological torment of its three main characters, culminating in a twist that, similar to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, changes the film’s tone and amplifies the drama upon repeat viewings.

None of Goodnight Mommy’s character-driven heft is at the expense of hardcore visuals, though. As extreme as genre cinema gets, the film challenges viewers not to look away on multiple occasions, namely a viciously prolonged scene where a character's mouth is closed shut with super-glue and then sloppily pried open with scissors.

Following a few recent Goodnight Mommy screenings, audience members have expressed their disgust with Franz and Fiala, over the film’s more extreme sequences. Whereas other filmmakers might take offense to having their morals questioned by complete strangers, the Goodnight Mommy pair welcome the outrage and physical discomfort. "I was once at the Vienna Film Festival for a screening of John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns, the episode he directed for the TV show Masters of Horror,” says Fiala. "During the scene where the man’s guts are loaded into the cinema projector, some guy behind me fainted, and when he fell over, he hit me in my back. I thought he was joking at first, and then when I saw the people dragging him out of the theater, it really struck me. Ever since that, I’ve always thought that John Carpenter would be really proud of that. That’s got to be the best thing for a horror director, and it’s happened to us twice with Goodnight Mommy! So we’re very proud."

So far, Goodnight Mommy’s reviews and press have been overwhelmingly positive, even leading Franz and Fiala's native country of Austria to select the film as its official Academy Awards submission this year. In talking about the film’s critical reactions, though, the familial co-directors are quick to single out its few negative analyses. One review in particular, in which the critic attacks them for giving the film an arthouse-minded slow burn quality over making it an all-out scare factory, has rubbed Fiala especially toughly. "There was one critic who wrote, 'These filmmakers must not be in love with horror films,' which really insulted us. How could they watch our film and think that about us?"

Adds Fiala, "I wish that critic could have been there when Veronika and I were watching the Friday the 13th sequels together."

Goodnight Mommy opens this Friday, September 11, in NYC at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Angelika Film Center. Film Society showtimes are below:

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 11:15 a.m., 1:15 p.m., 3:15 p.m., 5:15 p.m., 7:15 p.m., 9:15 p.m.

Angelika Film Center showtimes are:

Friday and Saturday at 10:00 a.m., 12:10 p.m., 2:35 p.m., 5:00 p.m., 7:25 p.m., 9:50 p.m., 12:00 a.m.; Sunday at 10:00 a.m., 12:10 p.m., 2:35 p.m., 5:00 p.m., 7:25 p.m., 9:50 p.m.


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