“If you told us our film would be the Austrian entry for the Oscars when we started, we would’ve said no way,” said Severin Fiala, co-writer/director of subtitled horror sensation “Goodnight Mommy,” whose co-conspirator Veronica Franz agreed. As first-time feature directors from Austria, they’ve found themselves, as if from outer space, doing the awards rounds in Los Angeles.
“It’s a pity our film is such an exception,” Franz said in our recent telephone interview, adding there should be more horror films in the Academy mix. “‘The Exorcist’ was nominated, and that was one of the nightmarish experiences of my childhood.”
Though Austria has launched many edgier foreign Oscar entries (including the films of Michael Haneke), it’s not often we see genre fare in the running, especially a film this scary, and violent. “Goodnight Mommy” — which centers on a set of blond-headed, evil-making twin boys who aren’t convinced that their mother, who’s returned home to their ultramodern hideaway facially marred by reconstructive surgery, is really who she says she is — opened in the fall from RADiUS, impressively topping $1 million at the US box office. It earned strong reviews after establishing a reputation on the festival circuit, beginning at Venice 2014 before landing at Toronto, Fantastic Fest (as Tim League’s secret screening), Rotterdam, Palm Springs, Karlovy Vary and beyond.
While it may be too intense for the more traditionally minded neck of the Foreign branch, “Goodnight Mommy” could merit a committee save when the shortlist is revealed mid-December. The Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee has, since 2009, given overlooked submissions a boost. (They likely rescued Greece’s 2010 nominee “Dogtooth,” a film about as cruelly extreme as “Goodnight Mommy.”) But foreign voters are facing a crowded pack of worthy contenders, including Taiwan’s arty “The Assassin” from Hou Hsiao-hsien, French crowdpleaser “Mustang” and Hungary’s tough-sit Holocaust recreation “Son of Saul” at the helm — all Cannes winners.
Fiala was “very surprised” by Austria’s choice. “We’re very proud that our film may help horror cinema that raises the right questions.” The film’s lurid material is burnished by glistening 35mm cinematography, a choice supported by the film’s producer, Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl, who’s enjoyed a longtime collaboration (and marriage) with “Goodnight Mommy” co-writer/director Franz.
Now that they’ve signed with WME, Franz and Fiala, who was babysitting her kids when they first met two decades ago, are of course being chased by Hollywood for horror projects. They’ve got a few ideas in the kiln, “ranging from science fiction to historical,” said Fiala. “There is one horror film inspired by the refugee crisis going on around the world, and another set in the 19th century involving women murdering babies and executioners and stuff like that.” But, he cautioned, “It’s crucial that we maintain the freedom to make the films we want to. Someone else can take your movie apart.”
“For us it’s not about earning money,” said Franz. “It’s about how you live your life, and it’s great to live it making films.”