By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Australian horror films have quietly proceeded as some of the most subversive and unnerving installments of the genre in recent years. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook popularized the controversial sub-genre horror ‘elevated horror’ with a terrifying horror movie that did not rely on cheap thrills to scare. Relic, the directorial debut of Natalie Erika James, similarly incorporated slowly built-up tension, which culminated in 90 minutes of pure dread. And these are just two examples. There are many more, with Wolf Creek, Hounds of Love, and The Snowtown Murders also highlighting the poignancy and mercilessness of Australian horror cinema.
Talk to Me, the feature film debut of twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou (perhaps better known from their popular RackaRacka YouTube channel), continues this winning streak of impressive Australian horror. The film follows a teenager named Mia (played by Sophie Wilde), who, along with a group of friends, begin conducting rituals with an embalmed severed hand for fun. Seriously, what could go wrong? Well, as expected, the group of teens soon find that they have meddled with powers they don’t understand and must face the wrath of malevolent supernatural forces.
If the basic premise of Talk to Me sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because it is. This is most certainly not the first possession movie to come around, nor is it the first to feature a group of naive teens whose misguided attempts at having fun lead to disastrous, supernatural consequences. In turn, this means Talk to Me could have easily been a run-of-the-mill supernatural horror film that checks all of the obligatory boxes of cheap-thrill horror before never being thought of again. But that is certainly not the case with the final product delivered by Danny and Michael Philippou, who masterfully craft a refreshingly contemporary, genuinely scary, and psychologically unsettling experience that is bound to become a horror cult classic a few years down the line.
With a premise that could easily be played for humor (kids messing around with a severed, embalmed band), Talk to Me is surprisingly and unrelentingly dark and gets under one’s skin from the get-go. A brilliant unedited tracking shot following a teenager navigating his way through a house party opens the film and, for some indiscernible reason, immediately conveys an intensity to the audience. This intensity carries through for the entirety of the film’s 95 minute runtime in a manner not dissimilar from Ari Aster’s Hereditary.
As intense as Talk to Me is, the film feels extraordinarily timely, contemporary, and realistic (which is obviously an odd thing to say about the movie given its premise). The film focuses on a group of teens who spend their freetime drinking, smoking, and TikToking. They’re of an age where doing something glaringly stupid is bewilderingly appealing and perceived invulnerability is abundantly apparent. So, when the teens decide to pull out the severed hand, touch it and say “Talk to me,” and then say “I let you in” to allow a spirit to temporarily possess them, their actions don’t come across as ridiculous or unrealistic. Instead, the teens in the movie feel like real teens dealing with real problems, including peer pressure. And, as the teens become hooked on conjuring spirits using the embalmed hand, there aren’t dense conversations about how and why this is possible. Rather, the teens embrace the experience for the wild fun it has to offer. Quietly, several of the friends hold fears and suspicions, but the peer pressure to keep these to oneself and proceed forward with the game proves too strong, highlighting another element of realism present in the core friend group at the heart of the film.
This friend dynamic allows for an opening act that unnerves rather than downright scares. There’s certainly something off about the embalmed hand and it’s clearly not going to end well if the teens continue messing around with it, which, coupled with the aforementioned intensity in the film, imbues a sense of dread as the film progresses. This dread, however, soon turns into full-blown grotesque horror when things inevitably go awry with the hand. At this point, the directors retain the film’s intensity, while trading out its more subdued sensibilities for genuinely scary and unnerving imagery and scenes. Incredible make-up and prosthetics, coupled with so many tense close-ups and stunning sound design, collectively culminate in Talk to Me being the scariest movie of the year to date and one of the scarier horror movies released in a while.
With such intensity and horror achieved before the film’s halfway point, the filmmakers do struggle somewhat to maintain momentum for the duration of the runtime. This is less to do with the film becoming an ineffective horror movie, however, and more due to how superbly terrifying the opening acts are in comparison. That being said, Talk to Me resolves in a manner far more cohesively and coherently than one might expect from similar horror films. While many supernatural horror movies lose momentum and, eventually, taper out to a point in which one is glad to see the end credits roll, the Philippou twins craft the rare supernatural horror film with a genuinely satisfying ending. In this sense, Talk to Me may find its greatest success earlier on, but, nonetheless, continues to captivate all the way through a well thought out conclusion.
Again highlighting another aspect in which the film lacks sheer originality, Talk to Me is far from the first horror to deal with themes of death, grief, and regrets. While the film goes above and beyond its conventional plot with masterfully crafted scares, it doesn’t have much to say about grief and loss that hasn’t already been conveyed more deftly in other horror movies. This isn’t to say the film doesn’t succeed with its subtext and exploration of deeper themes – it’s just that it’s been seen before and done better.
Where Talk to Me excels above all doubt is with its performances, especially those of lead Sophie Wilde and young actor Joe Bird. Wilde plays Mia, a teen who is struggling with the loss of her mother andis drawn to the potential of the embalmed hand to communicate with the dead. Wilde is superb as the lead and arguably carries the entire film on her shoulders. Her performance is gripping and powerful, with Wilde conveying the depths and subtleties of trauma and loss so genuinely. Bird, meanwhile, plays Riley, the younger brother of Mia’s best friend who tags along with his older friends for the supernatural rituals. The sheer range of Bird’s performance within the 90 minutes of the film is remarkable as the actor delivers a magnetic, haunting performance.
Talk to Me isn’t the most original horror film in that it deals with supernatural forces and grief as many other horror films do. However, Talk to Me stands apart as a genuinely scary and unnerving cinematic experience, one that continues to affirm Australian cinema as a home for some of the most underappreciated horror movies out there. Intense, realistic, and timely in equal measure, Talk to Me is unrelentingly captivating from beginning to end. Not only the scariest movie of the year to date, but one of the scariest movies in recent years, Talk to Me is the kind of horror movie that makes you want to shout at the screen and grip the side of your seat as hard as you can, something horror fans will delight in.