One of the best things about film festivals is that you often have no idea what you’re in for. You’re given a description of the film, sure, but there’s no previews, no months-long barrage of information about the upcoming film coming at you on television ads and social media. Speak No Evil is one film that is earning a reputation on its own merit well before its theater or VOD release.
Speak No Evil begins with two families on a beautiful summer vacation in Italy. Karin (Karina Smulders), Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), and their son Abel meet Bjørn (Morten Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their daughter Agnes. The two families become fast friends and enjoy their vacations together. There’s something a little bit odd about the Dutch family, particularly Patrick, but they are nice and pleasant enough. Over lunch, they enjoy a conversation over the similarities between Danish and Dutch culture, determining then that they are not so different.
When Bjørn and Louise receive a postcard from Karin and Patrick inviting them to stay at their house in the Dutch countryside, it sounds like too good of an offer to pass up. They’re promised food, drink, and long walks. Louise has some reservations — it’s a long time to spend with people they barely know, even though they were only invited for a weekend. They ultimately decide that it would be a bit impolite to decline. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
A score can really make or break a horror film; cliched sounds to let you know danger is coming can become tiresome and take some of the thrill away. Speak No Evil uses its gorgeous score by Sune Kølster perfectly. Swells of string instruments play in moments that should be mundane, building tension without being overbearing. The way that the music builds suspense right from the beginning of the film lets you know that Bjørn, Louise, and Agnes will not really be enjoying their weekend in the Dutch home.
Patrick and Karin are a bit overbearing, and their child Abel is also a touch strange. Pretty quickly, Louise decides that she doesn’t like being around them all that much. Louise can’t help but be exceedingly polite, even when Patrick insists that she eat meat – wild boar he hunted – despite the fact that she’s a vegetarian. At a point when Louise begins to tell Patrick why she is uncomfortable, she apologizes profusely as she does this.
So often in horror films, there’s a point in the story where a decision is made, and the film could easily just be over. It’s the point where you root for our main characters to just keep going, make that phone call, don’t turn around. Speak No Evil has one such point in the film, but you know that the film doesn’t end here. There’d be no movie if it did. You’d also expect for things to immediately get much worse after this point, but instead, Speak No Evil carries on with things being pleasant enough, if a bit uncomfortable.
Patrick and Bjørn even have an emotional conversation together, the two men opening up and seeming like they are really forming a friendship. The tone of the two families relationships shifts back and forth between amicable and uncomfortable, with the hosts in control of how things will go, and the guests too polite to speak up for themselves.
Speak No Evil is in no rush to show us what horrors are awaiting Bjørn, Louise, and Agnes, instead having us sit in discomfort with them through unpleasant meals that seem like they should be nice enough, and little moments of inappropriateness and boundary-crossing from Karin and Patrick that Bjørn and Louise are desperate to just ignore, even as things escalate. In the final half hour of the film, things take a turn for the worst for the Danish family, as Bjørn discovers something Patrick and Karin have been hiding.
The end of Speak No Evil has some truly excruciating moments. Writer/director Christian Trafdrup does an excellent job making the two families seem so real and the story seem so true, that the film’s brutal ending feels like a real gut punch. Startling and disturbing, Speak No Evil far outshines conventional horror tropes and abduction thrillers — and makes you think twice about if minding your manners is such a good idea, after all.
Speak no Evil is screening at the Fantasia Festival and comes to Shudder in August
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