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Slow burn Danish horror film 'Speak No Evil' will make you squirm

"Speak No Evil" premiered at virtual Sundance earlier this year and so impressed me that I asked Digital Gym Cinema to play it. Here's why:

Let me start by saying that there’s no such thing as objectivity in a film review. When I fall in love with a movie, I don’t want to just review it, I want to advocate for it. That’s how I felt when I saw "Speak No Evil" at virtual Sundance.

As a horror fan I see far more formulaic films than innovative ones so I truly appreciate the filmmaker who can surprise me, and deliver something so anxiety-inducing and yet so elegantly crafted that I can’t take my eyes off the screen.

Get ready for slow burn horror of "Speak No Evil.”

In "Speak No Evil" there is nothing scarier than having to interact with other people.
Erik Molberg
An undated film still from "Speak No Evil." There is nothing scarier than having to interact with other people in "Speak No Evil."

Nothing scarier that small talk

The idea for "Speak No Evil" began innocently enough with a trip that filmmaker Christian Tafdrup took with his wife.

"We met a Dutch couple in Italy in 2016," Tafdrup said. "And immediately we became friends, and they were so nice, but also a little bit creepy. And I could not tell — are they really what they say they are? And then they invited us to see them, and I said, 'no.'"

But the couple in "Speak No Evil" say "yes" and comes to regret it.


There is a delicious sense of satire to the horror because Tafdrup plays on our social anxieties about interacting with strangers to build tension in the film.

"Real horror for me is not ghosts or aliens from outer space. It's being with other people," Tafdrup said. "It's like something that is not said. It's something very subtle because we have this situation, what happens when we are among strangers, what happens when we are guests. There (is) so much tension in that."

Music as horror tool

Tafdrup builds excruciating tension through incongruity and contrast. The score plays a brilliant role in ratcheting up our anxiety. Take the creepy opening scene of driving through the dark and how it’s punctuated by an ominous music hit.

But the edit takes us to a gorgeous sunny pool in Tuscany. So what are we to make of this?

"You have to give them a hint of 'we're going to a bad place together, but you don't know where yet, but it's going to come,'" Tafdrup said.

Indeed it will and Tafdrup loves tormenting us with that possibility. The music builds on our discomfort by sending us mixed messages. It goes from overt horror crescendos in cheery and mundane scenes to almost sweet and lyrical when the horror really kicks in. It is contradictory and ironic, and diabolically effective.

"We wanted to make a score that was not just underneath the characters' feelings and all that, but was a voice in itself, a character in itself, and almost like an opera," Tafdrup said.

Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) ignores her social discomfort and suffers the consequences in "Speak No Evil."
Erik Molberg
In this undated film still, Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) ignores her social discomfort and suffers the consequences in "Speak No Evil."

The music goes big but Tafdrup always has an eye on small detail and nuance. Take a scene where the host offers his vegetarian guest some meat and insists she try it.

"It's not just about somebody eating meat or [being] vegetarian," the filmmaker said. "There's so much more at stake. So we worked a lot of what is in between the words and how do we get a feeling of something devilish underneath everything."

Tafdrup plays on the fact that as a guest in someone's home people often try to be polite.

"There's nothing wrong about pleasing other people but there's something wrong about not taking that inner voice seriously, where you sometimes have an intuition of maybe I shouldn't be here," Tafdrup said. "Maybe something bad is going to happen, but I'm not sure. Maybe it's just me misunderstanding it."

Filmmaker Christian Tafdrup serves up a slow burn Danish horror film with "Speak No Evil."
IFC Midnight/Shudder
An undated still from Danish horror film "Speak No Evil."

Making an audience squirm

Tafdrup keeps us on the edge of our seat wondering if we should be worried or if we are just misunderstanding something and reading the social cue wrong. But we cannot shake the feeling that he is guiding us to something brutal and that makes us squirm.

Tafdrup said he felt cheated that he could not watch an audience squirm at his virtual Sundance screening earlier this year.

"I felt devastated and I'm still not really over it," Tafdrup said. "It just felt like the worst movie not to see with an audience."

And that is precisely why I asked Digital Gym Cinema to screen the film this weekend. I want to see an audience not just squirm but also appreciate Tafdrup’s masterful sense of craft. The film is very reminiscent of Michael Haneke's films, especially "Funny Games" and Tafdrup credited Haneke as an influence when he introduced the film at Sundance.

I will be hosting the Sunday screening at 1:00 p.m. at Digital Gym. The film also screens Friday and Saturday. It will also be available on Shudder but I urge you to see it in a cinema if at all possible to fully appreciate the care Tafdrup put into the sound design and visuals.

Pearl | Official Trailer HD | A24

'Pearl' also opening

Another good horror choice this weekend is Ti West's "Pearl," the prequel to his earlier film "X." I loved "X" and thought it was a brilliant homage to the 1970s indie horror vibe of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

"Pearl" gives us the backstory of the creepy old lady from "X" and it is a great companion piece. "Pearl" is not quite as spot on as "X" but Mia Goth's commitment to bringing Pearl to vivid life is riveting as we see a troubled mind unravel even more.

West gives the film a bright Hollywood Technicolor shine but he pushes the style and its incongruity to the story so hard that it starts to detract rather than enhance the film. In "X," you had a group of indie filmmakers in the '70s trying to make a porn film and the visual look of the film had the grit and 16mm nostalgia that perfectly fit.

But "Pearl" takes place in 1918 and Pearl is obsessed with silent musicals, so the eye-popping color and sort of '50s melodrama over-the-top score feel like they are coming from a different era.

Mia Goth stars as Ti West's "Pearl" in the prequel to "X."
Mia Goth stars as Ti West's "Pearl" in the prequel to "X."

Although "Pearl" does not feel as perfectly rendered as "X" it is still a stellar horror film that avoids a lot of genre tropes to deliver something that feels fresh. And Goth's Pearl shifts gears so often and with such unnerving speed that it's a rollercoaster of psychotic fun.

Stay through till the very, very end to get a teaser trailer for the final part of West's trilogy, "MaXXXine." I'm looking forward.

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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