We’ve seen horror films that have dealt with babysitter slashers, camp counselor-hunting psychopaths, serial killer dream killers, deadly plastic dolls, chainsaw-wielding maniacs, and even some Killer Klowns from Outer Space. But has the horror genre ever had a film about the terror caused by being too polite?
That’s the intriguing premise behind Speak No Evil, the new Danish film that is just one of a few movies in the “Airbnb subgenre” of deadly rental house hosts. In an interview with Digital Trends, the film’s director, Christian Tafdrup, talks about the real-life inspiration for his movie, why he was drawn to the horror genre despite never having made one, and how he wants his film to make people a little bit more comfortable about speaking up in awkward social situations.
Note: this interview has been condensed for length and clarity purposes.
Digital Trends: What compelled you to make Speak No Evil?
Christian Tafdrup: One day, I was looking at my parent’s wall and they had a postcard with an invitation from a couple they met in another country asking them to visit them again. This image of the postcard of that house was so creepy and I thought that was a very simple and relatable idea for a movie. That kind of scenario also occurred in my own life. I met a Dutch couple around the same time in Tuscany with my own family. We made friends with them and they invited us to Holland and we said no.
With all good ideas, you suddenly start fleshing them out in your head. What would that look like? And what if we went to stay with this family and what if it was not a comedy? Because in the beginning, I thought this is a very typical idea for a comedy where you get some misunderstandings between couples.
And then I thought, if this really was not a comedy, what if it was a horror and really went to a very dark place? It started out as an idea and then I wanted to give myself a challenge: The worst thing I could do was do a horror film because I’m not that experienced in that genre. I never watched a lot of horror films. I was afraid of the clichés, but I thought some of the conventions in horror were extremely effective. The main purpose of horror is to disturb the audience, which is something that I really like.
When you started developing this idea and it went to that horror movie realm, did you go back to any specific films that were in the horror genre or films that are unsettling that you drew inspiration from?
Well, of course, I thought a little bit about what I liked in the horror films I liked, and I discovered that if it’s a good horror film, I really like the first half. And then I think in the second half, especially in the end, it often goes too crazy and wants to explain itself.
The movie’s purpose turns out to be that it just wanted to scare you. And while the characters are not deep and the story is slight, I like the buildup to the ending. I like the suspense. I like that idea about, I think something bad is going to happen. I don’t know yet and I don’t know where we’re going, but that’s what we are heading to.
If you take Roman Polanski’s way of making horror or The Exorcist where you got a lot of relatable realism in it, you don’t just start out with seeing spinning heads and vomit-spitting demons. You take your time to get audiences to know the universe.
With Speak No Evil, we establish the setting very clearly and gradually: It takes place in a naturalistic house that any family could relate to or desire. I discovered along the way that I think that is the scariest thing I could do: If the horror is relatable, or if the horror is more between human beings than between a human and some supernatural elements.
We actually had a lot of supernatural elements in the script in the beginning but they were not very well written because I’m not very good at that. So, one day we discovered, let’s take that away. As a result, the horror in Speak No Evil is more suspenseful and discomforting. It makes the audience ask, “What’s going on?” It’s discomfort more than screaming until the end.
Is it correct to describe Speak No Evil as a horror film about politeness? What was your intuition about probing our limitations of being polite and the fear of being honest with another person?
Well, I was immediately interested in social behavior and in social rules and how much we are dictated by that. Sometimes we want to please everyone and as a result, we sacrifice ourselves. We don’t listen to that inner voice that is saying, “I’m really not comfortable here. I can feel it, but maybe it’s my fault. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding. I’m too obsessed with what other people think of me.”
I think that’s a very human thing. And then I thought, that’s a very cool way to have a take on horror. What if it is their [the protagonists’] own fault? They could take the car and leave any minute, but they don’t. If you met somebody who told you he or she is a doctor, you don’t expect that he or she will lie about that. You know, these are the social rules. These rules are something that in Western privileged societies we are taught since we were children. We want to be a part of the group. We want to behave nicely. And if we don’t, we get ashamed of ourselves.
It’s bigger than politeness. It’s like the foundation of being well-raised and very humanistic. Sometimes when you are too empathetic, you can actually allow evilness yourself, you are permitting it. Because you don’t have the tools to really fight against it, you can’t even believe it that it’s happening [to you].
I thought that was a very original and modern take on horror. With this film, I could say something about society and something that I find very true in myself and in the people in my country.
What do you want viewers to take away from Speak No Evil after they watch it?
Well, I want them to be disturbed by it because that was one of our main intentions. But I also wish that they can reflect upon how we live our lives, what we do to ourselves, and maybe we should sometimes be more honest about what we feel, and trust that intuition. I discovered in real life that I can say to people that I don’t want to be here anymore. I think I have to leave. It’s not really comfortable here. Of course, the movie would have ended if the protagonists were good at that in the beginning.
Don’t sacrifice yourself so much. We have this tendency to be brutal to ourselves because social behavior just dictates us so much. Think of yourself as your best friend and take care of yourself in that way.
Speak No Evil is currently streaming on Shudder.