Culture shock

“Speak No Evil” is a horrifying culture shock • AIPT

One of the best things about film festivals is that you often have no idea what to expect. You’re given a description of the movie, of course, but there’s no preview, no barrage of information about the upcoming movie on TV commercials and social media for months. Speak no evil is a film that made a name for itself long before its theatrical 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 Agnès. The two families quickly become friends and enjoy their vacation together. There is something a little strange about the Dutch family, especially Patrick, but they are quite nice and pleasant. During lunch, they enjoy a conversation about the similarities between Danish and Dutch culture, then determining that they are not that different.

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When Bjørn and Louise receive a postcard from Karin and Patrick inviting them to stay at their home in the Dutch countryside, it seems like too good an offer to pass up. They are promised food, drink and long walks. Louise has some reservations — it’s a long time to spend with people they barely know, even if they were only invited for a weekend. They finally decide that it would be a little rude to refuse. After all, what could be worse?

A score can really make or break a horror movie; cliche sounds to let you know danger is approaching can get annoying and take away some of the thrill. Speak no evil makes perfect use of its magnificent Sune Kølster score. Waves of string instruments play in what should be mundane moments, building tension without being intrusive. The way the music creates suspense from the start of the film lets you know that Bjørn, Louise and Agnes won’t really be enjoying their weekend in the Dutch house.

Patrick and Karin are a bit bossy, and their child Abel is also a bit strange. Quite quickly, Louise decides that she doesn’t really like being with them. Louise can’t help but be extremely polite, even when Patrick insists that she eat meat – wild boar he hunted – despite being a vegetarian. At a point when Louise begins to tell Patrick why she is uncomfortable, she profusely apologizes while doing this.

Quite often in horror movies there’s a point in the story where a decision is made, and the movie could easily be over. This is the point where you root for our main characters to carry on, make that phone call, not turn around. Speak no evil has such a point in the movie, but you know the movie doesn’t end there. There would be no movie if that was the case. You would also expect things to get worse immediately after this point, but instead, Speak no evil continues with pleasant enough things, even if a little uncomfortable.

Patrick and Bjørn even have an emotional conversation together, with the two opening up and seeming to really form a friendship. The tone of the relationship between the two families oscillates between friendly and uncomfortable, with the hosts controlling how things will go and the guests too polite to speak for themselves.

Speak no evil is in no rush to show us what horrors await Bjørn, Louise and Agnes, instead making us sit in discomfort with them through unpleasant meals that look like they should be pleasant enough, and little moments of inadequacy and Karin and Patrick’s boundary crossing that Bjørn and Louise are desperate to ignore, even as things get worse. In the last 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 at some truly awful times. Writer/director Christian Trafdrup does a great job of making the two families so real and the story so true that the film’s abrupt ending feels like a real punch. Astonishing and disturbing, Speak no evil far surpasses conventional horror tropes and kidnapping thrillers – and makes you think twice if watching your manners is such a good idea, after all.

Speak no evil is projected at Fantasia Festival and is coming to Shudder in August

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