Horror fans aren’t the only ones with reservations about remaking the 2014 psychological horror film “Goodnight Mommy.” Naomi Watts, who leads the American remake of the critically revered Austrian film from 2007, also had her doubts. The film, which follows two twin sons who begin to suspect their mother is an imposter following plastic surgery, was a major critical hit and an early example of the kind of elevated horror that is so popular today. As the mother, Watts’ face is covered in a gauze bandage for much of the film, presenting a unique challenge for the actress.
“When you learn the rules and the limitations, you figure out what you can do and you double down on them and then you really get very specific,” Watts said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Obviously in a close-up, the eyes were all I had. In a wider shot, I used my physicality and I had to go back to my training back in my very, very early days of when we learned how to use masks, so it was fun. It was a good challenge.”
Watts has led a few international remakes over the years, including “The Ring” (2002), adapted from the Japanese film, and Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (2007), another Austrian adaptation. But when director Matt Sobel approached her about remaking Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s genre hit, he won her over with a new vision for the film.
“I got first drawn in by the script and then had a great conversation with Matt,” Watts said. “I was struck by his high level of intelligence, and that led me to watching the film, which was very well-executed, and again, I struggled with making the decision of, should this be remade at all? But after having that first initial conversation with him, I really understood that he had a new take on it.”
In Sobel’s version, the violent urges of the original is softened into an eerie psychological thriller, transforming the clever premise into an tense family drama.
“I wasn’t going to be playing just a really black and white villain,” said Watts. “She wasn’t just a monster, she was someone who was haunted by her own demons and troubled, and also reducing all of the gore … not all of it, but certainly it’s not a lot of it, and escalating the psychological thriller aspect of it.”
Where the original film leans heavily into the body horror elements to tell its compelling story of family trauma, the remake uses more subtle means to spin the characters into an claustrophobic web of suspicions. Both films leave much to the imagination, taking a sharp focus to the tense three-hander.
“There’s some sparseness, there’s some long shots and wide shots and not too much laying it on thick with heavy-handed, formulaic ways that we often fall into these days, particularly with this genre,” said Watts. “With all of that negative space, you start thinking, ‘Oh, does this mean that? And, does this mean that?’ And, you’re really involved as an audience, I think, a lot more when things are left unexplained. … Coming from working with someone like David Lynch, I’m impressed by that. I like that, not knowing and seeing if your thoughts are right.”
Watts famously worked with David Lynch on “Mulholland Drive” (2001), a wholly original film which defies categorization, though it fits somewhere along the spectrum of genre.
“I love mystery, I love addressing fears. I find that fun as an actor to play. There’s so many things, so many different emotions that come under the umbrella of fear,” Watts said. “So, that’s why I’ve been drawn to this genre. It’s been a while though since I danced with this world, and so it felt good to come back into it.”
It just so happens that many of those films have been remakes, though she says that’s not intentional. She was drawn to “Funny Games” because of the chance to work with Haneke, even though he wanted to make a shot for shot remake.
“That was the reason to do that movie. He wanted to make the same movie, by the way. He didn’t really want to alter anything. … Am I going to pass up the opportunity to work with that kind of director? No, that was all about him,” she said. “I guess people are drawn to it enough, but they want to make it their own and put it in into enough of a different territory that there’s something for them to discover. I don’t know, it’s not like I’ve been trying to make remakes. It’s just happened, but it’s been a while.”
“Goodnight Mommy” is now streaming on Prime Video.