The sub-genre of travel horror is perfect for those whose definition of traveling is moving around in a six-kilometer radius of your city or town and then getting back home before sunset. And also because it features some solid movies like NH10 (2015), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Sam Was Here (2016), Go Goa Gone (2013), Evil Dead (2013), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Coming Home in the Dark (2021), Midsommar (2019), A Classic Horror Story (2021), The Ruins (2008), Revenge (2017), Train to Busan (2016), and The Ritual (2017). Now, if these titles haven’t put the fear of traveling in you, Speak No Evil (Gæsterne) (2022) certainly will.
Directed by Christian Tafdrup and written by Christian and Mads Tafdrup, the movie follows a Swedish family of three: Bjørn (Morten Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and Agnes (Liva Forsberg) on their trip to Tuscany, Italy. There they meet a family from Holland: Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders), and Abel (Marius Damslev). Over the course of a few days, they become very friendly with each other. And at the end of the vacation, Patrick and Karin invite Bjørn and Louise to come over to their home for a few days. After some mild hesitation, the Swedish couple takes up the offer and travels all the way to Holland. Of course, it’s a travel horror film. So, everything looks fine and dandy initially and then goes downhill in the most grotesque way possible.
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The writing and direction in Speak No Evil is simply top-notch. It seems like the Tafdrups know that the audience is waiting for things to go wrong. They assume that we are aware of the fact that the invitees’ fate has been sealed from the get-go. Yet we are fooling ourselves for the sake of Bjørn, Louise, and Agnes’s well-being and hoping that the family will survive the horrors waiting for them. But that’s not how things are going to go.
So, they keep delaying the twist and instead focus on tightening that knot forming in your stomach while watching the interactions between Bjørn, Louise, Patrick, and Karin. And the manipulation via Patrick and Karin is so subtle and yet so noticeable that you cannot help but be awed by it. The Tafdrups walk that fine line where you can’t exactly figure out if Patrick and Karin are actually being intimidating or, like Bjørn and Louise, we are just overreacting.
The visual storytelling, created with the help of DOP Erik Molberg Hansen, editor Nicolaj Monberg, and production designers Jeanette Brahe and Sabine Hviid, adds to this dichotomy. The roads, the houses, the rooms, everything looks very comfortable when framed in mid shots and medium close-up shots. But as soon as they pull back ever so slowly to show us the rest of the topography (literal and psychological), we realize how isolated, and thereby helpless, Bjørn and Louise actually are.
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Sune Kølster’s compositions don’t help at all. This means he nonchalantly channels Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s score from The Shining (1980) and just makes the atmosphere so unbearably nerve-wracking. And the icing on the proverbial cake are the performances from Burian, Koch, van Huêt, Smulders, Forsberg, and Damslev. Those last 15-20 minutes are going to knock your socks off and maybe even make you puke a little.
That said, what does it all amount to? What is Speak No Evil trying to say through Bjørn, Louise, and Agnes’s woeful journey? Is it just a cautionary tale about not going on a vacation trip? Or that you shouldn’t accept invites from people who you’ve just met on a said vacation trip? Well, if you do a very surface-level reading of what’s going on, yes, that’s definitely one of the many things that the movie is trying to say. But if you listen to it and look at it closely, you’ll see that the Tafdrups are also painting a bleak picture of how weak the upper-middle class is. They’re so wrapped in their rules, their niceties, and most importantly, their insecurities, despite being so privileged, that they’ve lost the ability to fend for themselves. And that’s why people like Patrick and Karin are getting to live out their sick fantasies. Because there’s no resistance.
The Tafdrups don’t really provide a solution to it all though. They show how dire the situation is by forcing us to look at Patrick and Karin’s (spoiler alert) unending cycle of torment. They hope that we realise that we shouldn’t be afraid of what’s outside because it’s all flesh and bone. Instead, we should face the demons we’ve inside first, as a unit, before heading out. So that we can avoid buckling under the pressure of our thoughts and our differences before the bad guys even lay a finger on us. And that’s just one of the reasons why Speak No Evil is essential viewing for all. The viewing experience probably won’t be easy and you’ll find yourself squirming in your seat quite a few times. But you must power through because the movie’s message is one that needs to be heard right now.