Have you ever been on holiday and connected, really bonded, with a set of complete strangers? There’s something about the shared serene experience of being away from home that makes people more open to making new friends, but See No Evil demonstrates the perils that this can bring.
After having become fast friends whilst holidaying in Tuscany, Danish family Bjørn (Morten Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) accept the invitation to stay with Dutch family Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders) and their son Abel (Marius Damslev). The group all got along famously whilst in Italy and Bjørn and Louise are looking forward to replicating the experience. It quickly becomes apparent that this won’t be happening as the Patrick and Karin they encounter here are vastly different to who they thought they met on holiday. As true colours are shown, the Danish trio find themselves in a very vulnerable position.
Films that fall within the horror genre are riddled with rules. For example, if you move into a new house, especially if you got it for a heavily discounted price, it will be haunted. If you choose to stay in a remote cabin in the woods, something will try to kill you and, as demonstrated in Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil, if you’re a tourist, your chances of surviving your holiday are slim. What makes Speak No Evil such an effective horror film is that it sticks closely to reality. Oftentimes it is the more realistic and relatable stories that hit-home and traumatise audiences, and Tafdrup’s film certainly lies within these boundaries.
The story is told firmly through the eyes of Bjørn and Louise and so the viewer is placed in a constant state of unease and embarrassment as they cringe through the situations that the couple and their daughter have to endure. Much of the early tension comes from simple encounters and situations that many will have lived through. The cracks begin to appear early as the visiting vegetarian family is presented with a meat feast for their first night’s supper. Rather than refuse to eat the meal and propose an alternative, the trio politely and tepidly works their way through the food, not wanting to cause any trouble. As a former fussy (but polite) eater, I can recall many times at friends’ houses where I ate all manner of things that I wouldn’t have at home so as to not offend anyone. It is this exact mindset with which Bjørn and Louise approach their stay, and it is their politeness that becomes their undoing. From this meal on, Speak No Evil becomes a series of set pieces that become increasingly more uncomfortable and terse.
Tafdrup is a self-confessed novice of the horror genre, Speak No Evil being his first foray into the genre and yet he hides his inexperience well. The director does some excellent work in constructing tension and unease, taking time to work up to the real horror elements. This slow build-up pays off with an unexpectedly brutal and gruelling finale. He also does an excellent job of keeping Patrick and Karin on the right side of ‘normal’ for as long as he does. These aren’t characters that immediately stick out as bad guys. Their behaviour for much of the story can be explained away as simply being a clash between parenting styles and outlooks on life. Where Tafdrup does start to lose the audience is in how much Bjørn and Louise are prepared to endure before they eventually decide to leave. Then follows several wasted opportunities for them to get to safety and it’s hard for the viewer to remain on their side when they make such stupid decisions. As exasperated as the audience might be, the ending is barbaric enough to bring them back around, as no one deserves what unfolds.
Tafdrup and his brother Mads Tafdrup set out to write the nastiest horror they could imagine and Speak No Evil certainly aligns with their goal. The real-world and relatable scenarios grip the viewer and keep things excruciatingly tense for the bulk of the movie. A cautionary tale about why parents should always know where their child’s favourite toy is, Speak No Evil is an intensely uncomfortable movie. Channelling the best of Funny Games, Wolf Creek, and The Strangers, Speak No Evil is sure to leave you on the edge of your seat with your heart in your mouth.
Speak No Evil is available now on Shudder.
This review was first published on THN.