Forget the Ouija board. With Talk to Me, a creepy new conduit for channeling the dead has come into play. It all begins with a ceramic hand that is eerily lifelike. The stories of its origins are varied, but all disturbing in the way of juicy urban legend. The game attached to this cryptic limb is simple: Hold its cold fingers in yours. Light a candle. Address the spirit world by saying, “Talk to me.” Surrender your body by saying, “I let you in.” You have opened a door to the dead. You will be possessed. Blow that candle out before 90 seconds passes or else.
All hell can break loose in the “or else.” In their feature debut, twin YouTubers turned co-directors Danny and Michael Philippou (aka RackaRacka(Opens in a new window)) suck audiences into their distinctive hellscape with a tightly knit tale of teen outcasts — and some stupendously sick practical effects.
What’s Talk to Me about?
Written by Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman, this Australian horror offering centers on Mia (Sophie Wilde), a grieving teen hungry for connection in the wake of her mother’s death. A wall of silence has grown between her and her father. Her best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen), while loyal, has been distracted by a new boyfriend (Otis Dhanji). So, when possession parties pop up promising the thrall of escape, Mia’s perhaps overeager to bound into the unknown. At first, it’s all fun and twisted games. But when the game goes on too long, Jade’s sweet little brother Riley (Joe Bird) pays a gruesome price. While his fearsome mother (Miranda Otto) searches for easy answers, Mia and her friend must look into the abyss of limbo to pull Riley back from it.
Within this setup, the Philippous have ample space to spasm in grief, teen angst, and sexual panic. The spirits who overtake the teen’s bodies are often of the ferociously horny or outrageous variety, giddy to spout worrisome threats or perform a kinky act with a licking dog or some naked toes. These bouts of unnerving action are exhilarating. Part of this success belongs to the performers — both the teen actors playing possessed and the gooey ghouls revealed by the hand. But the directing duo deserves praise for keeping their central conceit not only creepy, but also dripping with ick.
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Talk to Me‘s practical effects will make you scream…and gag.
The ceramic hand is a suitably spooky handshake to introduce Talk to Me‘s world of sinister spirits. From there, the performers chuck their bodies back violently in the chair, as if the rush of the spirit into their form has a violent physical push. The camera whips up with them, plunging audiences into the thrill of the rush by chasing the thrown-back head and scared expression. Large dark contacts make the pupils of the possessed’s eyes feel alien. Their faces drain of color, turning a puckering pale blue, as the blood flees from their childish cheeks. But this is just the look of tourists in the torturous realm of limbo.
The spirits themselves come in various genders, ages, and appearances, but generally, they all share a certain gloppiness. They are bedecked with bruises, blue skin, oozing dark bile. Some have fingernails broken as if they’d been clawing at a closed coffin lid. Others are bloated as if they’d drowned and been lost in the tide. All possess a slick, shiny sheen of — god only knows — snot? Ectoplasm? Drool? These vicious ghosts race across rooms or skitter out of dark corners, and you might well get lost in their deranged details, even as you shudder at their scare tactics. Sharp cuts add oomph to the intrusions, making the ghosts appear and vanish in a blink of an eye. Of course, once Mia sees them, we know they’re always near — visible or not — and always craving the touch of a warm hand and the call of the candlelight. In this way, suspense stews even when there are no ghouls to be seen.
An ominous score sends shivers as the spirits break the boundaries of the game, intruding into Mia’s life day and night. As the movie is focused on her experience, the directors bind us to her way of seeing the world. Every dark corner, every strange noise might be a lost soul screeching for attention. But having broken the rules of the game, Mia is, along with us, at a loss as to what could happen now. The Philippous revel in pitching us all into panicked battles — physical, psychological, and potentially fateful. It’s all twisted fun.
Talk to Me stands among teen horror by keeping it real.
These aren’t the devastatingly chic teens of 2000s studio horror, though Talk to Me manages a similarly sleek sheen to its production. These Aussie youths are plagued not only by poltergeists, but also by bad hair days, chipped nail polish, clumsy flirtations, and a painful need to fit in. Wilde channels Mia’s desperation for acceptance in a riveting performance, made up of stolen glances, wry smiles, and rib-rattling screams. The other teens match her, offering performances more grounded and gritty than the waifish and wooden or glamorously theatrical that Hollywood horror tends to turn out. But it’s the mom who truly stands out.
In teen-centered horror, parents are often sidelined or effectively nonexistent to the tormented teens and whatever evil stalks them. In Talk to Me, Otto plays the kind of mom who demands absolute honesty from her kids and gives it back, clearly stating her expectations and boundaries before leaving them home alone. But it won’t be enough to save them from horror. Her rage over that slices through the film’s second half, creating a heart-wrenching obstacle to Mia’s plan to save Riley. Naturally, what mother would let this bad influence near her beloved and battered boy after what happened last time?
While Wilde must shoulder the emotional storytelling, and does so with aplomb, Otto plays a mom so real that it makes the movie’s most outrageous bits feel authentic, bound by this line of recognizable parental intensity.
Thrillingly, Talk to Me isn’t all darkness. And that’s part of its power.
It can be easy to distance ourselves from the plight of many a horror protagonist. We tell ourselves we’d never act the way they do. We wouldn’t play with the clearly evil toy. We wouldn’t trust the smirking tourist. We wouldn’t climb a tall, teetering pole for the online clout. But Talk to Me diffuses this distancing judgment by taking the time to relish the fun before the fear.
After the rules of the game are introduced, the Philippou brothers let loose on a kinetic montage, intercutting the possessions of the partying teens. Though scary, this paranormal exploration feels like a party, the kind where you might act reckless, exposing your youthful — and presumably invincible — bodies to sex, drugs, alcohol…or ghosts. Indeed, the act of being possessed is treated as if it’s doing a shot, or a drug trip — a delicious dare to prove yourself and entertain those who look on. Mia and her friends eat up the chance. And even as things get gross, it’s easy to connect to the vicarious thrill of it all. There is glory in the stupid naivety of youth. That reveling makes the turn to violence — unrelenting and inexplicable — all the more harrowing. Because moments before, weren’t we having fun? The speed at which it slips through our fingers is all too real and frightening.
In the end, Talk to Me is a terrifically scary horror offering thanks to powerful performances, creepy creature designs, a splash of blood and gore, and practical effects that’ll blow your mind and chill your spine. Like its sister in Sundance 2023’s Midnight slate, Birth/Rebirth, Talk to Me is the rare horror trip that knows just when to end — with a wallop. If you’re looking for some freaky frightening fun, be sure to reach out and touch this one.
Talk to Me was originally reviewed out of Sundance 2023.(Opens in a new window)