Christian Tafdrup Wanted Speak No Evil To Be The 'Most Disturbing' Danish Film Ever Made

This post contains spoilers for "Speak No Evil."

2022 gave us some of the most original horror movies of recent years. Surprise hits like "Barbarian" and "Smile" received considerable recognition and made Disney and Paramount, respectively, a decent profit. But there were a host of innovative and novel horror delights which, though not as popular, pushed the boundaries of the genre in unique and often downright harrowing ways. If it wasn't "Skinamarink" with its liminal trauma nightmare, it was films such as "Speak No Evil" — a movie so upsetting its test screening responses ranged from, "The director has to be mentally examined," to, "This film should not be recommended to human beings."

The idea of a "disturbing movie" has almost become a sub-genre of horror itself. YouTube is littered with videos of TikTok types claiming to have watched "the most disturbing films so you don't have to" or running down a list of "the most disturbing films of all time." Familiar entries often include gore-soaked doom fare such as "A Serbian Film," or "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom," both of which leave an indelible impression on viewers for their unrelentingly bleak outlook and visceral gore.

But "Speak No Evil" maintains that same bleak outlook and leaves a similarly indelible impression without constantly relying on gore or body horror. Instead, director Christian Tafdrup's film, which he co-wrote with his brother Mads Tafdrup, simply asks audiences to confront one of the more overlooked societal issues. Namely, "Speak No Evil" takes our tendency to avoid conflict, appear polite, and please others to its absolute extreme. The result is so unreasonably disturbing that /Film's Chris Evangelista dubbed it "a movie so bleak and cruel that it's bound to infuriate." Which, as it turns out, is exactly what Tafdrup and his brother had intended.

The scariest part isn't the horror

"Speak No Evil" centers on Danish couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). The family meet Dutch couple Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) and their son Abel (Marius Damslev), who invite Bjørn and Lousie to their country home in the Netherlands. Patrick and Karin increasingly reveal a more sinister side, while Bjørn and Louise, though concerned, maintain their politeness as things escalate, passing over opportunities to leave and eventually succumbing to a vicious and cruel fate due to their inability to fight back.

Though the film's horrific finale features one of the scariest scenes of the year, Christian Tafdrup actually combines multiple genres throughout, impressively juggling drama and social commentary alongside the horror elements. But when it comes down to it, the non-horror elements are arguably the most disturbing, as "Speak No Evil" taps into an almost pathological need in our culture to please others and appear polite in social situations.

Speaking to, Tafdrup explained how the film evolved from a potential comedy premise to its chilling final form:

"I often get ideas that would fit well for comedies or satire. That's what I'm familiar with: looking at the awkwardness of human behavior. This 'cringeness' between people is something I feel very close to." 

Inspired by his own experiences meeting people he "thought were cool" and turned out not to be, Tafdrup developed his idea into a "social satire and family drama with conventions of the horror genre." As the project developed, he and his brother identified a specific goal: "We shook hands and made a promise: 'Let's do the most disturbing film ever—in Danish cinema.'"

The dark radicalism of Speak No Evil

With a clear goal, the Tafdrup brothers found "Speak No Evil" took on a new purpose, becoming "darker, more radical — and about something." It became so dark in fact, the pair could easily claim to have made not just the most disturbing film in Danish cinema, but one of the most disturbing films generally. On the flip side, the film's unsettling nature made it difficult to cast. "Actors said no to castings because they thought the last 20 pages were just too much, and many people asked me to rewrite that," Christian Tafdrup told Entertainment Weekly.

But those actors missed the point. The real horror doesn't necessarily come from the brutality of those final scenes (though they are incredibly hard to watch), but from the suggestion throughout that the couple suffers such a cruel fate because of their own inaction. It's their passivity in the face of intimidation and physical violence that's so unnerving.

As Tafdrup went on to explain in his Roger Ebert interview: "I did not want to explain why the [Dutch couple] did what they did. I didn't want to say, 'Where are the police?' I wanted the story to symbolize evil in the world and how we react to it." That, it's safe to say, is exactly what he did with "Speak No Evil," which occupies that nightmare territory within the horror genre that goes beyond jump scares and gore to a place where you feel the presence of something obscenely heavy and dark. It's the rare horror film that can make you genuinely wish you hadn't seen it in the first place, but "Speak No Evil" is of that ilk. If it wasn't so well done then I'd probably agree it "should not be recommended to human beings."