“I don’t want to be in a situation for even an hour where I’m not enjoying myself” – Kim Cattrall
I like to believe I’m a pretty friendly person. My mother raised me that way. I’m inclined to view the best in people from the start and eventually get disappointed when they might not be what I gave them credit for. However, it’s gotten me into situations where I’m a bit too afraid to speak my mind regarding my feelings about certain situations due to a fear of being rude. Most times, when I reach a breaking point where I finally speak up regarding something a little uncomfortable, it tends to resolve itself relatively quickly as communication reveals itself as the key to most misunderstandings, and can often be the most compassionate avenue for problems. So, basically, as a friendly boy with good old Southern hospitality baked into my bones from birth, Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil (Gæsterne) genuinely is my worst nightmare distilled into a 97-minute film. I also must be a masochist because I somehow loved that shit.
Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are a Danish couple on vacation in Tuscany with their young daughter, Agnes (Liva Forsberg). During their travels, they meet affable, affluent Dutch couple Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) with their young, mute son, Abel (Marius Damslev), and hit it off. After returning home to Denmark for a while, Bjørn and Louise receive an invitation from Patrick and Karin to visit them at their countryside home in Holland for a weekend reunion of friends. Upon arrival, Bjørn and Louise find their hosts to be much less inviting and hospitable than the laid back couple they met in Italy. Not looking to offend their hosts, they go along with some inconveniences at first, which begin to slowly escalate into terrifying hostility.
Sure, maybe I’m a little prone to hyperbole from time to time, but damn it, had I been able to watch Speak No Evil in a theater, I genuinely think I might come close to passing out from the stress of it. Not since mother! have I felt such raw anxiety watching a film, with my blood pressure spiking to such levels that a papercut could’ve pressure washed my home by the third act of this. Much like mother!, the terror of Speak No Evil doesn’t necessarily come in the big, grand moments of its finale, but the slow, gradual buildup of tension from the social cues being frighteningly disregarded. It begins to almost feel alien in behavior (the film does not have any alien plot twist, thankfully), but the absolute second-hand terror that you begin to feel on behalf of Bjørn and Louise is such a personal, relatable horror that you’re both horrified by it, but also weirdly can’t look away.
The slowly draining chemistry of the four leads with each other is what makes Speak No Evil so entirely chilling to watch, because I too fell for the charms of the young, carefree Martin and Karin. I knew something was going to go wrong, but I couldn’t pinpoint when the film was going to make that sharp turn into horror. That’s when it dawned on me that there is no part of this film that isn’t straight-up, pulse-pounding horror. I was stressed out from the get go, perhaps not in a way that I expected I would be with how it turned into its endgame, but stressed out nonetheless. It’s an exercise in how far one can pull small bits of interpersonal tension and turn it into full-fledged dread.
As someone who has been on a vacation where I decided about halfway through that the vibes simply were not right, and I wanted to go home, there is not anything more awkward and energy-draining than wishing to leave a situation that ideally, you should be excited and grateful to be in. The Southern urge to always be polite, mirroring the Danish urge to always be polite, sends you into mental gymnastics of somehow both putting up with unfriendly behavior, while maintaining some sense of decorum that ultimately, does not save you.
Perhaps if Speak No Evil has a downfall, it’s that there are certainly some points near the film’s third act where logic somewhat leaves the building and you’re left with the Danes almost comically going along with the unpleasantness of the Dutch. Red flags turn into a tour of the factory in which the red flags are manufactured, and all you want to do is shout at the screen Amityville Horror-style “For God’s sake, get out!”
Again, no hyperbolizing or anything like that, but Speak No Evil made me want to die watching it, and strangely, that’s my favorite type of horror film. Sure, sometimes horror can provide some sort of “comfort food”-esque effect to it like the new Scream installment, but the most memorable moments for me lie in the moments where I am genuinely scared; where I truly feel like I want to remove myself from a situation because I, as a viewer, somehow also feel unsafe. That’s what horror is built off of, and despite whatever fun you can have with it (this film has surprisingly funny moments, if you can stave off the faintness you feel), I want to walk away scared. Speak No Evil left me so mortified that all I wanted after it was a cigarette, even though I don’t smoke.
Screening during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Speak No Evil is expected to be released later in 2022 as a Shudder original.
Final score: 4.5 out of 5.