This has not been a good year for horror films thus far. It’s not that big of a deal, as there’s usually one major genre that suffers a lapse in quality every year, but for 2023 it’s been particularly grim. There is the odd bright spot, like Evil Dead Rise (which I didn’t see, as I was tending to my mother’s final arrangements, but it stands at 84% on Rotten Tomatoes), but basically, the entries that have made the biggest waves haven’t been about actual scares, but campy parodies thereof (M3GAN, Cocaine Bear, and The Blackening, for example). And honestly, things don’t look all that promising on the horizon, as the output for the remainder of the year is basically nothing but franchise sequels that no one requested (for the likes of The Nun, Saw, and Pet Sematary), after we’ve already had similar fare earlier in the year (sequels for Scream and Insidious). Really, the only upcoming projects that pique even the faintest interest are The Exorcist: Believer and Thanksgiving. The former is a legacy sequel to one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and the latter is the long-awaited realization of Eli Roth’s parodic interstitial teaser in 2007’s Grindhouse.
So you can imagine my extreme relief when I saw Talk to Me (not to be in any way confused with the 2007 Don Cheadle film of the same name; that is vastly different and wonderful for its own set of reasons), because for the first — and possibly last — time all year, I felt like I was watching a real scary movie again. Directed by Danny and Michael Philippou in their respective feature debuts (they run a YouTube channel called “RackaRacka,” which deals in horror comedy), this experiment in supernatural viral terror was a smash hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it’s now in full release nationwide. Easily the best I’ve seen in a long while, this is among the more disturbing haunts in recent memory, with the Philippous and their stellar cast fully committed to shocking the audience while translating some universal experiences that stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.
After an absolutely expert one-take opening sequence that shows you just how quickly and thoroughly it can make your jaw drop, the film settles on its main character, Mia, played by Sophie Wilde. Two years previous, her mother (Alexandria Steffensen) died in an apparent suicide, and since then her relationship with her father (Marcus Johnson) has become strained. As such, she spends most of her time at the home of her best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen, who looks a lot like the singer Lorde), and acting as a surrogate sister to Jade’s younger brother, Riley (Joe Bird). Despite her trauma, she remains well-adjusted, and is kept in line by the relatively permissive family matriarch, Sue, played by Miranda Otto, the only established name in the cast.
One night, the teen trio goes to a house party hosted by two of their classmates, Hayley and Joss (Zoe Terakes and Chris Alosio, respectively), accompanied by Jade’s boyfriend, Daniel (Otis Dhanji). There, Mia volunteers for an occult ritual, curious because she’s seen Hayley and Joss post videos of it on social media. They bring out a mummified hand and light a candle, telling her that doing so “opens a door,” and that blowing out the candle will close it. She is then told to grip the hand like she’s introducing herself and say, “Talk to me.” This will allow her to see a ghost and speak with it. Uttering the phrase, “I’ll let you in,” results in full-on possession by the spirit, which the teens insist can only go on for 90 seconds, lest the host go insane. When Mia invites the dead person that only she can see into her body, the episode is recorded for more online fun, though notably her session goes a few seconds over the time limit, and Riley gets spooked when Mia singles him out as a target for torture.
That’s the entirety of our otherworldly setup. It’s kind of ballsy to just assume everything about this is above board, but that’s because the Philippous are letting you know that none of it really matters. The hand, and everything associated with it, is merely a prop, a physical focal point to draw attention to the actual story they’re telling. Because of that, we can simply gloss over how Joss got the hand, how they know it can be used to perform a living séance complete with shared consciousness, or how they can be sure that ghosts even exist.
It’s all taken as read because the true frights come from what the moment represents rather than what it depicts. Mia has been morose for two years, and is judged for her coping mechanisms (or lack thereof). Her encounter with the great beyond is equal parts peer pressure (though not openly goaded, she steps up to prove to Hayley and others that she’s still “fun”), a cathartic high (the images of the near euphoric state the kids find themselves in after the startling initial contact are pristine), and a tragic reminder of her own self-doubt and isolation, elevated ten-fold when Riley plays for the first time and channels Mia’s mom.
Suicide is always a difficult issue to depict on screen, because it’s one of the few real-life horrors that can affect anyone. I’ve said it before that I’ve been to that edge, and I’m shattered whenever I hear about someone who doesn’t make it back, and the more we discuss this — and all aspects of mental health — openly, the more we remove the stigmas associated with it. And while I believe that any subject is fair game for art, I do get annoyed when the willful extinguishment of a person’s own existence is treated in a casual manner (as depicted in, among others, The Matrix Resurrections, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and The Happening), or even weirder, as a noble option (A Star is Born… any version).
Here, however, it’s treated with empathetic care. As Mia’s overexposure to the afterlife conjures more and more visions, the feeling of the walls closing in becomes ever more palpable. The filmmakers go to extraordinary lengths to show the irrational self-loathing and fear that leads to the idea that death is the only way out, the ultimate solution to a temporary problem. Mia is not a complete innocent, as the movie does its due diligence to show her as making some bad decisions for which she should bear responsibility, but her crippling sense of social dread, of being shut out from the world and the type of support she needs, is made abundantly clear. Talking to her dead mother raises far more questions than it answers, but she’s so desperate for that connection that she’s willing to accept whatever morbid consequences might come with it.
Through this angle, the film delivers brilliant horror because you can see that Mia doesn’t deserve what’s happening to and around her. Really, none of these kids do, even the really irresponsible ones. The movie becomes a sort of odd “Afterschool Special” if you think about it long enough, as the hand is little more than a metaphor for excessive drinking or some designer drug. In the end they’re just young people having well-intended fun and making the same mistakes that every kid makes. However, when it comes to Mia (and later Riley), the results are grotesquely laid bare, and the compounding emotional damage that ensues is just as important as the physical.
Speaking of the physical, the production values are superb. Working on a budget of just over four million dollars, the Philippous work some classic movie magic throughout the picture. The practical effects are solid, as is the use of extreme close-ups and Steadicam for the possession scenes. The moments of gore and violence are believable and shocking due to crisp editing, deft writing, and some really convincing makeup. With a bankroll of less than whatever Jason Statham likely got for pretending to kick a big shark, the Philippou brothers craft a more believable and realistic creepshow than anything the major studios will shit out the rest of this year.
Oddly enough, though, the best piece of the puzzle might just be how “local” the whole thing is. This is an Australian film, with Australian actors speaking in Australian slang with no attempt to hide their accents, residing in a purely Australian setting, including driving on the left and a poignant early scene where Mia sees an injured kangaroo on the side of the road. I wouldn’t normally bring this up, but when it comes right down to it, you don’t often see everyday Australia in mainstream cinema in the U.S. Sure there are Aussie characters every now and then, but they mostly fit a stereotype or exist to amplify the voice of someone like Hugh Jackman or Nicole Kidman. Rarely is there a film set in Australia that isn’t in the Outback, or isn’t just a flyover of Sydney’s skyline before settling on a generic urban environment.
This is a suburban horror film, like any other you’d see (Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.), except that this particular suburb is in one of the two English-speaking countries we almost never use as a backdrop (the other one obviously being New Zealand). Everything is either the U.S., Canada, the U.K., occasionally Ireland, or Caribbean nations if there’s a need for tropical scenery. In what may have been an unintentional genius touch, I think that adds to the somewhat detached nature of the scares, because despite the fact that we all speak the same language, having this film be purely Aussie makes it feel distinctly foreign due to past industry practices.
When I first heard of this film and its premise, my immediate thoughts led me back to the terrible Ouija movie from 2014 (and its baffling 2017 sequel), just one of a very ill-advised set of projects based on board games. The reason it was a critical disaster (5% on RT) was partly because it was a corporate cash grab, but mostly down to the fact that the game — which relies entirely on someone taking the initiative to move the planchette after minutes of nothing happening — was just a branded excuse to tell the same ghoul murder story we’ve seen hundreds of times before.
The key to Talk to Me, however, is in its decision to basically cop to the flimsiness of the inciting object, and instead use it as a conduit to tell a deeply dark story with themes and characters that will feel real and familiar to anyone who’s had to deal with its dire subtext. The hand is just a piece of scenery, casually stowed in backpacks until the story needs it to be on screen. It’s what’s done as a result of it that matters. It’s that need for human contact and compassion, and the unforeseen costs that can come with it, that earn the movie not only its excellent scares, but stunning degree of pathos.
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