Twins Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) begin to wonder whether the bandage-masked woman (Susanne Wuest) they share a remote house with is actually their mother – or an impostor who has taken her place. On her part, the woman tries to connect with Elias – but not Lukas – but loses patience with what she takes to be his odd fantasies. At the mid-point, the bandages come off and the woman resembles photographs of the boys’ mother exactly, only her mole is now a cosmetic stuck-on, and the children take more drastic methods to find out what happened to their real mother.
Writer-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz draw very heavily on one specific, not-that-well-known source for this creepy kid/demented mama movie – which means that a significant portion of the audience (the ones who saw Robert Mulligan’s The Other or read Thomas Tryon’s novel) will twig a major reveal very early on. There is a canny bit of misdirection that seems to rule out the expected twist as the mother treats both boys equally for a while, but – rather than save it all up for a shock – the film gradually lets slip what the actual situation is, without spelling out explanations for every odd circumstance. It evokes the strange, insular world of childhood as the boys are a bad influence on each other – in the first scene, one leaps out of tall corn with a homemade demon mask which is later duplicated as both blond brats become monsters of a sort, and there’s unsettling detail like a walk across wobbly, soft earth and a tank full of just-caught cockroaches that might be reducing a body to a skeleton.
It’s not clear whether ‘Mommy’ has had plastic surgery to keep (or imitate) her looks so she can stay in business as a minor cheery TV personality or to recover from a bad car accident that has shaken the family – but she is also a dour, nagging presence who takes to locking the boys up and making rules about trivial things like bringing animals in the house, which they instantly break, leading to a gruesome and ambiguous frontroom artwork involving a dead cat suspended in water. However, when the bandages are removed, the situation changes and it’s the children who seem like monsters as they use upsetting methods – including a magnifying glass – to try and torture the truth out of a woman who can never satisfy them, especially since she isn’t hearing or seeing one of them.
As in The Other, one twin is imaginary (rather than a ghost) as Elias represses his empathetic impulses by conjuring up Lukas to overrule him whenever he wants to be merciful (‘we agreed we wouldn’t believe her’) … which leads to a final conflagration and a downbeat finish. It’s an uncomfortable watch, well-acted by the kids and grown-up, and has an icy, Austrian feel thatmakes good use of remote, unpeopled locations and the clash of moderne, soulless holiday home and primal landscape. It may be that its revelations a bit see-through – especially since it’s not the first film to riff on The Other (A Tale of Two Sisters, remade as The Uninvited, were more loosely drawn from Tryon) – though reframing the story as a mother-and-children conflict (the older witch-woman in The Other is the grandmother) makes for a more intimate horror.