So it’s time for another review here on Knockout Horror. Today we are taking a look at Danish psychological horror movie Speak No Evil. This actually represents our first European horror movie review of 2023. We have covered a few in the past year. I am a big fan of European horror in general. It tends to have a different vibe from a lot of English language stuff. It seems to punch above its weight. Well aware that it has to compete in a landscape dominated by the US and Canada.
That does lead to something of a strange reaction from certain viewers, though. Many European horror movies are given glowing reviews even if they are average. There is a certain bias towards foreign horror as a whole. A movie that would be a 5/10 if made in America. Is likely to be a 7/10 if made in Europe. The same applies for Japan and South Korea. A lot of bad horror from these places has received undue praise.
I think the Austrian version of Funny Games is a good example of this. People seem to rave about the Austrian original and shit all over the American remake. This is in spite of the fact that the American version is a shot for shot remake. That is also without mentioning the fact that Michael Haneke directed both of them. Has Speak No Evil fallen foul of the same tendency? Let’s take a look. As always, I will give a quick breakdown of the movie. You can skip this if you like.
Directed by Christian Tafdrup. Speak No Evil follows the story of Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch). The couple are on holiday in Italy with their daughter when they meet another couple. The couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), seem nice. They have a young son who seems to be reluctant to speak. Bonding over dinner and jokes made at the expense of Swedes. The group spend time together and enjoy their holiday. Not long after returning to normal life, Bjørn and Louise receive a postcard.
The postcard is from Patrick and Karin. They are inviting them to stay with them at their home in the Netherlands. Realising the awkwardness of spending a weekend with people they barely know. Bjørn and Louise are, initially, reluctant. Eventually they decide to go. Afterall, it would be rude not to accept. And what is the worst that could happen?
After arriving at the home of Patrick and Karin. It becomes clear that there may be a conflict of personalities. Despite being a vegetarian, Patrick cooks meat and insists Louise try it. The couple’s clashing values cause friction. Patrick’s treatment of their son only complicates things further. Little do Bjørn and Louise realise. Awkward interactions are the least of the concerns.
Speak No Evil, as a horror movie, feels very familiar. I spoke about Michael Haneke’s Funny Games a little earlier. Funny Games is a social commentary on the culture of violence in Western media. We aren’t really taking specfically about horror movies and whatnot here. We are talking about the general public’s desire for real life blood and guts. The news broadcasts sadness around the clock. Violent sports lets you witness people suffering life changing injuries in real time.
Violence sells despite how pointless and horrific it is. Funny Games points the finger at this trend. Featuring a number of horrifically violent events taking place for no reason. The response from the viewing public was not surprising. People were upset and claimed that the film was needlessly brutal.
Speak No Evil feels a lot like Funny Games. Aside from being a social commentary in and of itself. It features events and violence that seem almost completely pointless. Indeed, it would be impossible to not see the influence of Funny Games here. These films are starkly similar. The main difference is the topic of commentary and the presentation. Speak No Evil builds at least something of a story. That story acts as more of a vehicle for the film’s message than anything. It still feels fairly substantial, though, and rather engrossing.
Danish couple Bjørn and Louise are clearly hardworking and living a decent life. Always polite. The pair would hate to turn down the gracious invitation of Dutch couple Patrick and Karin. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? The world is a decent place full of wonderful people. Or, at least, that’s what Bjørn and Louise’s world is like. Living in one of the safest countries in the world. Bjørn and Louise spend their days holidaying in Italy. Reading bedtime stories to their perfectly behaved daughter. Drinking wine and spending time with their friends. It is a fine way to live.
Bjørn secretly lusts for something more. Deep down he feels an animalistic, wild, person just screaming to get out. Still, he passively pushes it down. Replacing it with more mundane dinner parties and another glass of wine. Afterall, how could someone selfishly wish for more? Passiveness is, at this point, all that Bjørn has left. He is woefully unprepared for the ills of the world. His reactions are dulled. Numbed by the constraints of living in such a structured manner. This is something that will play into the events that happen later on.
Speak No Evil points a finger at this very type of person. Apparently this is rather typical of Danish society. Danish people are unlikely to suspect that something untoward is occurring. A Dane would have to experience something pretty worrying to actually be concerned. On top of that, it would be considered extremely rude to voice said concerns. A much more appropriate reaction would be to hope for the best. Assume that everyone acts with good intentions and carry on.
This forms the basis of the commentary at play in Speak No Evil. It’s right there in the name. It is also represented in a metaphorical sense by what happens to certain characters. If that weren’t enough. The full stop at the end of the sentence makes it clear. It comes in the form of a statement uttered by the villains when asked their motivations. It is stark, deliberately unsatisfying and brutal in its implications. Which leads me neatly on to my next point.
Speak No Evil is brutal. Absolutely brutal, there is no other way to put it. A movie that feels slow and rather innocuous. Suddenly takes a dramatic turn into unspeakable horror. This horror is made all the more impactful by just how real it feels. If you could remove the comic, satirical, elements from Funny Games. The rewinding of scenes, fourth wall breaking and silliness. But leave the gruesome, pointless, violence. You would have Speak No Evil.
The movie hints, frequently, at something being amiss. Patrick and Karin are somewhat out of the ordinary. Seemingly living a far less structured life than Bjørn and Louise. Their public displays of affection seem strange. Their devil may care approach to life unsettle the Danes. A heated encounter on the dance floor leaves Louise feeling uneasy. A drunken drive home accompanied by loud music provoke rage in her. It also prods at the inner wild child buried deep inside of Bjørn. He smiles at the antics of Patrick, perhaps yearning to share his sense of reckless abandon. The same could also be said of Louise. A near miss with Patrick while she showers scares her. The resulting passionate love making that follows suggests it awakened something in her. It is clear that she suffers for their repressed lifestyle too.
When the situation escalates. The pair’s inability to communicate and act on their discomfort betrays them. You’ll want them to leave and walk away. The palpable frustration is a reminder of how the two of them don’t want to rock the boat. I mean, after all, it can’t be that bad, can it? The truth is, it can and it absolutely is. The result of their actions is an ending that will divide as much as it shocks.
The last thirty minutes of Speak No Evil transforms the film. The awkward tension that existed between the couples manifests into something else. Secrets are uncovered and the actions that follow are devastating. There are few scenes in horror as gut wrenching as those presented here. Once again, the passive nature of the characters comes into play. It makes for horribly frustrating viewing. It is also incredibly effective. As the credits roll, you will likely feel one of two things. Misery at what you just saw or disappointment.
Plenty of people are going to feel completely unsatisfied at the events of Speak No Evil. This isn’t Hollywood. The movie isn’t crafted to please the viewer. It is crafted to shock and remind you of how the world really is. With this in mind, it is likely to leave viewers feeling empty. The fact that the movie is fairly slow paced up until this point adds to that. If you dislike slow paced horror, you are far more likely to feel disappointment here. Speak No Evil requires a lot from the viewer. The pay off doesn’t really offer anything back.
For veteran horror fans keen to see something different. The ending here will likely tick that box. Not every horror movie should answer every question. Not every horror should make you feel good. This is just a different way of doing things. It represents the ideal end to the story being told here. As brutal, frustrating and unsatisfying as that is.
As far as horror movies go. Speak No Evil isn’t what I would describe as scary. It is more awkward than tense. The couples gradually realise that they have significantly different lives. Their personalities begin to clash and the tension mounts. Many of the movie’s scenes are quite difficult to watch for that reason. One, in particular, featuring the children dancing is particularly uncomfortable.
The tension mounts towards the end. As we reach the movie’s climax, the atmosphere changes. The awkwardness is replaced by a real sense of danger. The final thirty minutes are effective horror and very tense. The slow build pays off with an interesting and powerful final third. Once again, these scenes are uncomfortable. Some may find them difficult to watch. It is also worth pointing out that people with an aversion to certain themes should avoid this movie.
Scenes featuring abuse of a child are present throughout. They are, as you can imagine, difficult to watch. Violence is present but comes in an unexpected way. Another thing that viewers often dislike is nudity. I tend to advocate for the use of nudity in horror movies. Not for the purposes of titillation but to shock. Nudity adds to a sense of vulnerability. When used correctly, it can be a powerful movie making tool. With this in mind. Speak No Evil features one of the most effective uses of full frontal nudity I have seen in horror. It works perfectly given the events taking place. It does bear mention, though. I know certain people can be put off by this type of thing.
Acting is fantastic throughout. Fedja van Huêt, as Patrick, and Karina Smulders, as Karin, are both excellent. They do a very convincing job of seeming like an approachable and nice couple at first. When their real personalities become apparent. The pair are equally as convincing. Fedja van Huêt, in particular, does a really nice job of seeming incredibly slimy in parts.
Morten Burian, as Bjørn, does a brilliant job with quite a nuanced role. He manages to convey Bjørn’s sense of bottled up rage perfectly. Scenes when Bjørn finally begins to stand up for himself are excellent. You really get a feel for how just difficult he is finding overcoming his repressed nature. Similar praise goes to Sidsel Siem Koch as Louise. While not as nuanced a character as Bjørn. She does a really good job. Her performance in the final scenes is particularly powerful.
Speak No Evil is a quirky mix of Dutch, Danish and English. English is spoken predominantly with the couples communicating in the mutually shared language. The Dutch and Danish are subtitled but this is fairly rare. Given the ability of the actors to do such a good job in multiple languages. They deserve an extra dollop of praise. Cinematography is fine. It’s rarely outstanding and has a tendency to be rather dreary and dark. The flat landscape leaves much to be desired. Overall, however, it does the job.
As far as criticisms go. It really depends on the type of horror you enjoy. Speak No Evil is definitely not for everyone. Directing is fantastic but this is a slow paced movie. It has a runtime of 97 minutes. Looking back, it feels much longer than that. The movie is glacial with regards to pacing. Events feel drawn out and the awkward tension only adds to that. The aforementioned awkward tension is very key to the movie. It is sure to put people off, though. This is like a drawn out version of a Ricky Gervais sitcom. You have awkward dancing, awkward kissing, an awkward sex scene and awkward interactions. Some people are going to hate this.
There are plot holes here and there. A few things that don’t make much sense. There are also a few unanswered questions. The main characters make ridiculously stupid decisions. Naturally, this plays into the theme of the movie. Bjørn and Louise don’t wish to upset anyone. The things that they do are going to annoy people, though. Some viewers will check out of the movie about half way through. The family do something that makes no sense at all. It will piss people off and they won’t be able to invest in the second half. I really enjoyed the movie but this part alone knocks at least a point off of the score.
The ending has similar issues. Some viewers will find it ridiculous and unbelievable. Many will completely disregard it and that is understandable. Aside from it not being your typical Hollywood horror ending. Things take place that will have you questioning the likelihood. Again, the ending plays on the earlier themes of passiveness. I think it takes it and stretches it beyond reasonable levels, though. Some people are going to hate it.
There are some moments of needless exposition, as well. The movie opts for a somewhat Hollywood style explanation for the events. It felt a bit needless to be honest. The villain’s explanation for why they are doing it undermines this a little as well. On top of these things. Something is revealed at the end that makes the events of the movie seem unlikely. You really have to suspend disbelief to buy into the fact that this could have even happened. I will go into that more in the forthcoming ending explained article.
Speak No Evil is an incredibly dark psychological horror. Featuring a plot that acts as a social commentary on sheltered Danish Middle Class Society. It is awkward, uncomfortable, and absolutely brutal all at the same time. With this in mind, it is a difficult recommend. Some people are going to hate it. Some people will find it too slow. Some will be put off by the awkward interactions. The actions of the protagonists will feel alien to some viewers. The motivations of the antagonists are even less well defined and even less satisfying. The horrific ending only makes it even more difficult to recommend.
Pushing all of that to one side, however. Speak No Evil is an utterly engrossing exploration into the darker side of society. Taking a family of completely unprepared people and placing them into a world they didn't think existed. Speak No Evil offers up a truly terrifying vision of pointless violence. Fantastically acted throughout, it is completely believable. This only adds to the element of horror. It is slow paced and features some infuriating actions by the main characters. Despite this, it is essential viewing for fans of brutal psychological horror. It is Funny Games for the even more macabre. You won't feel good after watching this. You won't feel happy. But you may have a new found appreciation for why it's best to say "No" every now and then.