It may come as a surprise that Christian Tafdrup has never directed a horror movie before. Written alongside his brother, Tafdrup set out to make a film that creates “the most unpleasant viewing experience possible” for the audience to witness. Depending on the type of viewer you are, Tafdrup will most likely succeed in his mission. Speak No Evil delivers another entry into the “don’t talk to strangers” horror canon while subverting expectations by using well-known horror tropes. What comes of this is an exquisite use of slow-burn that unravels into a truly haunting finale.
While on a vacation in Tuscany, a Danish family; Bjørn (Morten Burian) and his wife Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), along with their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg), make acquaintances with a similar family from the Netherlands. This new family, consisting of Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders), and their mute son Abel (Marius Damslev), invite them to visit their home after their vacation. The Danish family agrees and drives into a remote area of the country where the Dutch family resides. There, while appearing mostly normal, minute issues begin to make themselves apparent to the Danish family. Wanting to remain civil, they put up with the Dutch family’s increasingly uncomfortable actions until it might be too late to leave.
Although the film may, at a surface level, sound similar to the likes of Funny Games or The Strangers, Speak No Evil differentiates itself by purposely avoiding horror tropes until well into its runtime. It presents possible situations for tropes to occur, but instead of employing them, the film subverts those expectations by not following suit. The characters may interact in a tense situation, leading the audience to presume an eruption of anger or violence will follow. What actually ensues is a polite brush-off or change in conversation. This allows the film to slowly build tension by not having outbursts, instead showing the lengths the Dutch family will go to test the limits of the Danish family’s patience and acceptance. The horror lies in knowing something is wrong, while watching the family continue to excuse it as a misunderstanding until things escalate too far.
What’s frustrating about this, however, is that the Danish family’s suspicions are valid, which the audience knows and the family realizes at a certain point, but they continue to go along with the Dutch family. This can continue to create stress within the viewer, but can also have the power to irritate the viewer past a certain point. By the end, certain actions or lack thereof might have the audience rolling their eyes or yelling at their screens. While foolish character decisions happen in nearly every horror film, in this case, it can take the audience out of the film’s well-crafted narrative and result in a less hard-hitting ending.
Although the pacing is comparable to a slow-burn, it is never boring. In fact, each scene elicits either cringe-worthy reactions due to the families’ behaviors, or utter disturbance when things start to turn ugly. This employment of slow pacing works because each scene slowly builds on the last, heightening the discomfort until all that is left to happen is an explosive release. Along with the rising tension comes small disturbing clues indicating the malicious nature that might be resting behind the Dutch family’s friendly facade. All of this is paid off in a brutal, nasty finale.
Speak No Evil is the perfect example of slow-burn horror: utilizing its slower pacing to dish out increasingly alarming behavior, but never tipping its hand too early. This balance of pacing and payoff culminate into an unnerving and brutal depiction of violence. It’s disturbing mostly because at nearly every turn these gruesome events could have been avoided. Tafdrup exercises restraint in all the right places, allowing him to unleash it all in the final minutes, creating a punch of an ending that leaves you frustrated and unnerved.