Director Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil (Gæsterne; Denmark/Netherlands, 2022) may be the most uncomfortable horror film in recent memory, as it puts social niceties, including acting “correctly” and politely, under a microscope and plays with the ideas of what horror is before delivering an absolutely harrowing third act.
Danish family Bjørn (Morten Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) meet Dutch family Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders), and their young son Abel (Marius Damslev) during a trip to Italy. The two families strike up a casual friendship during the trip, and a few months later, Patrick and Karen invite Bjørn, Louise, and Agnes to spend a weekend with them at their home. Things start off a bit uneasily when Patrick insists that vegetarian Louise taste the wild boar he has prepared for their first meal together, and things get increasingly uncomfortable from there.
Speak No Evil starts off as pitch-black comedy of manners before heading into full-on horror territory. Even when events feel merely uneasy or awkward, there is a feeling of impending menace in the air. You never know what is going to happen next, but you know it isn’t going to be good for the Danish family, and that at some point, it is going to be downright awful. When the emotional gut punch of a third act arrives, I guarantee you will be moved in a discomfiting way, no matter how seasoned or jaded a horror film aficionado you may be.
The four adult leads all give splendid performances, subtly nuanced as their characters keep their true feelings and motives simmering just below the surface while attempting to use their faces as masks to show others only what they want to show. The film’s technical aspects are all top notch, as well. Director of photography Erik Molberg Hansen’s cinematography gorgeously captures everything from beautiful landscapes in three different countries to the telling expressions of the actors’ faces to the thoroughly distressing climax. Sune Kølster’s superb score sets the tone from the opening moments, featuring jolts of ominous string music in otherwise prosaic or gentle moments — establishing shots, a school pageant, sea waves — hinting at what is to come while underlining danger that lurks constantly below the surface of everyday life.
Christian Tafdrup, working from a screenplay he cowrote with Mads Tafdrup, has crafted a truly chilling work, fraught with perfectly-timed rising tension, that dissects social facades and asks how far we will go to protect our personal sense of civility. It may do for potential new friendships what Jaws did for keeping people out of the ocean. Speak No Evil firmly takes its place as the first entry on my “favorite films of 2022, regardless of genre” list.
Speak No Evil screens as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs online January 20–30. For more information, visit https://www.sundance.org/.
Shudder, AMC Networks’ premium streaming service for horror, thriller and the supernatural, acquired rights to Speak No Evil ahead of its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.