Speak No Evil is a film I had on my radar, but one I was apprehensive to pursue for a simple reason – that is an awful title for a horror film in 2022. Speak No Evil? Really? It might as well forego any and all streaming services and ship copies directly to the dump bin of your nearest supermarket, or maybe shove it someplace really deep in the archives of Tubi TV‘s horror movie section.
That’s an awful name, but it isn’t an awful film. And, in its defense, after having seen the film, I can at least say the name is appropriate to the film’s subject matter.
I stumbled upon Speak No Evil on the Shudder streaming service, a service I am very fond of and would highly recommend. The film was directed by Danish director Christian Tafdrup, whose prior credentials include an interesting-sounding drama film called Parents but no other genre films yet. The film was shot in Denmark and the Netherlands, but is mostly shot in English. The script was co-written between Christian and his brother Mads. As far as cast goes, the film didn’t have anybody I recognized, with most of the cast primarily relegated to dramas in Denmark, a niche I’m not exactly privy to.
As a film, Speak No Evil is relatively straightforward. A Danish couple and their daughter are invited to a Dutch couples’ house for a weekend holiday, and decide to take them up on it. They arrive, and, well, whether you know what happens or not, what you do know is that it is a horror film called Speak No Evil, and so, chances are, a happy holiday weekend isn’t what awaits them.
This is a slow burn psychological thriller film, which I feel might be important in keeping your expectations about the film in check. Prior to watching, I hadn’t seen even as much as a trailer for the film, but I had seen comparisons of the film to one other film and short, sentence-long reviews of the film.
The film I had seen compared to was The Strangers, an alright slasher film that has since developed a cult-following among many of you. In my findings, the comparison itself has less to do with the actual film and how the story unfolds, and more to do with the feeling it tries to leave you with. One of the best quotes from The Strangers is the classic line – “Because you were home.” The statement resonates as terrifying because it suggests a pointless cruelty to what is happening on-screen. It creates the sentiment that, if you didn’t answer the door, they would’ve simply went down the block and conducted business as usual over there instead. It’s the same appeal John Carpenter‘s original Halloween film had, where Laurie Strode is only some other victim to Michael Myers, not his sister, nothing special at all. That’s the feeling Speak No Evil has – an unnecessary meanness that happens simply because the world is unnecessarily mean.
As a film though, it isn’t like The Strangers, particularly. Instead, it is more comparable, I think, to something like Mark Duplass‘ film Creep. In Creep, a man is filming for another person, and you know that other person is dangerous. You don’t know for sure, but you pretty much know. And so, you spend the whole film waiting for the other shoe to drop and for crazy dangerous people to do what crazy dangerous people do. That’s, more or less, what Speak No Evil is.
For better and for worse, the cat is already out of the bag for Speak No Evil in that respect. Thus, it is more about being perturbed by the ride itself and having the curtain peeled back on exactly what evil is being tucked away.
The criticism I have seen thrown around most about this film is this – our protagonists are pushovers. I had heard this criticism a lot, and I kept telling myself I wouldn’t allow myself to be bothered by it as I watched or that the criticism was off-base and unwarranted. I will be damned though – our protagonists are pushovers!
Of course though, that’s really a major idea of the whole film. In a way, Speak No Evil is a satirical work, a social-commentary on the way we accommodate others or go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. It’s realistic, too, isn’t it? We can all imagine a person in our lives that’d eat expensive, burnt steak instead of sending it back. No one wants to be that guy! Or, staying someplace you don’t want to be, because you don’t want to offend. Or, … or, … lots of things. It’s realistic, but this film will have you yelling at your screen every now and again, pleading with the characters to grow a backbone.
By the time Speak No Evil ends, it leaves you with a melancholy feeling of dread more so than any other emotion. It isn’t a gratuitously violent film. All of the particularly violent acts are brief, but it’s the way they’re contextualized and the tone of the film that make them feel especially cold and depraved (Michael Haneke did this really well in the film Funny Games).
Pound for pound, Speak No Evil doesn’t have a whole lot we haven’t already seen. The film’s acting is solid, whereas the scenes early on, while standard, are immersive enough. A lot of it’s watching the couples’ interact, and it’s mostly all about building to the close, without anything particularly remarkable happening beforehand. In terms of characterization and story, it’s all familiar ingredients, but done in a squirmy, melancholic way that makes it feel a little like you’re tasting it on an airplane (and I mean that in a good way, I think). It’s an icy, squirmy film that shows a very different way of looking at the horror genre than what’s most usually spotlighted.