Speak No Evil is part of the Midnight Official Selection at the Sundance Film Festival (2022). It was recently acquired by Shudder.
Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil constantly reminds of a rule that parents often tell their children: Don’t talk to strangers. They could be the nicest people ever, at first, but their intentions could become more and more sinister over time. Tafdrup exploits this fear in his first horror film—co-written with his brother, Mads Tafdrup—and creates something so unnerving that it will stay with you long after the credits run.
Speak No Evil focuses on a Danish family, Bjorn (Morten Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their young daughter, Agnes (Liva Forsberg). While vacationing in Tuscany, they befriend a Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders), whose go-with-the-flow mentality heavily contradicts Bjorn and Louise’s more conservative style. The only one who doesn’t seem to share their bubbly personality is Patrick and Karin’s withdrawn son, Abel (Marius Damslev).
The families spend their entire vacation together, with Bjorn particularly drawn to Patrick. A few months later, Bjorn, Louise, and Agnes receive an invitation to visit Patrick, Karin, and Abel at their rural home in Holland. Despite Louise’s reservations, Patrick eagerly accepts. The family drives eight hours from Denmark to spend a weekend with people they thought they knew so well.
Tafdrup makes every interaction from there feel frightening, no matter how simple the gesture. Whether it’s Patrick going into the bathroom while Louise is showering or a strange, drunken night at a bar, there’s always a sense of an ulterior motive. But is this because Patrick and Karin are untrustworthy, or is it Louise and Bjorn’s judgemental assumptions? The class divide is significant between the two families, after all. Bjorn and Louise live in a high-rise apartment, and Agnes goes to flute lessons every Tuesday; Patrick and Karin can barely find a makeshift bed for Agnes to sleep on. So it’s easy to see how this movie could be more about xenophobia and classist tensions than a straightforward genre exercise.
But once the horror starts to rev up, we see that Louise’s assumptions might have some weight to them, and something just doesn’t sit quite right with this family. Their decision to stick around has much to do with Bjorn and his romanticized view of Patrick and Karin’s life. At one point, Patrick and Bjorn are in the car, and Bjorn talks about his boredom of life and all this pent-up anger he cannot release. This side of Bjorn isn’t explored much further, which is a shame because it could have expanded his character beyond simply being the family’s patriarch.
Tafdrup himself has called his film a “satirical horror movie,” but it doesn’t quite get there. The social commentary isn’t as strong as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (which would be a hell of a double feature), and the satire is lost among the horror elements it’s trying to juggle. But that’s not a huge strike against the film. As it is, Speak No Evil is terrifyingly effective and shows that Tafdrup has the chops to dive deeper into the genre.
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