- Courtesy Of A24
- Sophie Wilde plays a teen whose toying with the spirit world has dire consequences in this anti-cozy Australian horror flick.
Is there a horror movie scarier than Oppenheimer? Perhaps not. But Talk to Me, an Australian import that had its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, has been touted as one of the most terrifying films in a while. Directed by 30-year-old twins Danny and Michael Philippou, who grew up doing stunts in their backyard and parlayed their reckless inventiveness into a career as YouTube entertainers, the movie reflects their seat-of-the-pants aesthetic, complete with practical effects.
Two years after her mom's death, depressed teen Mia (Sophie Wilde) finds solace at the home of her best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen), where she plays big sister to Jade's kid brother (Joe Bird).
Sophie persuades Jade to accompany her to a house party where their classmates are engaged in a new diversion: recreational spirit possession. Half séance and half raucous party game, their ritual revolves around a plaster cast of a hand that supposedly contains the mummified appendage of a deceased medium.
Light a candle, hold the hand and say, "Talk to me," and you will see ghosts. Adding the words "I let you in" allows the spirits to possess you. But be sure to release the hand and blow out the candle after 90 seconds, or your otherworldly visitors might stick around.
Desperate to get out of her own head, Mia is all too willing to let ghosts into it. But when her deceased mother joins the party, things go off the rails.
Will you like it?
I know what you're thinking. Who gets possessed for kicks? Haven't these kids seen The Exorcist?
Many horror movies have a characters-lacking-common-sense problem, but the Philippous actually make this bug into a feature. The party scenes are the strongest parts of the movie; ragged and rowdy, they pulse with the barely controlled anarchic energies of adolescence.
From the very first scene, which opens with a long tracking shot into the dark heart of a party, we get the sense that anything could happen, and that's exactly how these kids want it. When their possessed buddies thrash and twitch and even French-kiss the family dog, it's a big joke, something to film with their phones and post online.
The folks at CinemaSins can object all they want, but humans seem to have a natural desire to play with the supernatural. Watching Talk to Me, I was reminded of the early scene in Poltergeist in which JoBeth Williams toys with the mysterious forces in her home, encouraging them to slide objects across the kitchen floor and laughing gleefully when they oblige. She later regrets her experimentation, and so does Mia, for whom possession quickly becomes an addiction. But their dangerous curiosity about the world beyond isn't implausible in itself, especially when combined with a motive such as Mia's yearning to see her mom one last time.
The party scenes also bring desperately needed moments of levity to Talk to Me. When they end, it becomes an oppressively dark movie, both aesthetically and thematically, with a level of gritty realism that current American horror cinema lacks.
Imagine an early M. Night Shyamalan movie, such as The Sixth Sense, stripped of all the director's fuzzy optimism and belief in serendipity, and you're starting to grasp the mood of Talk to Me. Early on, driving through a turgid night, Mia and Riley encounter a bellowing, dying kangaroo on the roadside; Mia can't bring herself to put it out of its misery. Later, after a horrific midpoint twist, she faces a similar dilemma with higher stakes.
Ghosts slip into this world casually, with no shimmer of digital effects. But they also have no good intentions, and their influence warps Mia into a downright unsympathetic protagonist, flailing from one hopeless delusion to another. As Mia becomes more isolated and prone to spontaneous spirit visitations, watching Talk to Me feels akin to being trapped in a room with someone who's lost touch with reality.
Recently, horror fans were divided by a social media debate over whether "cozy horror" is a legitimate subgenre or an oxymoron. I'm inclined to defend the ineradicable nihilistic streak at the heart of horror, but Talk to Me tested my resolution. While the pitch-dark ending is beautifully executed, it doesn't offer much in the way of catharsis. The possessions work as a metaphor for grief, mental illness and substance addiction, but the movie doesn't offer much in the way of new insight into those travails.
Talk to Me does pivot on one cruel, clever idea, though: While people like to play with the supernatural, the supernatural refuses to be gamified. Late in the film, Mia tries to undo the damage she's done by reenacting the ritual, clearly hoping for a video game-style reset. The spirit world's response? Essentially, "talk to the hand."
If you like this, try...
The Babadook (2014; AMC+, IFC Films Unlimited, Pluto TV, Shudder, Tubi, rentable): The Philippou brothers were crew members on Jennifer Kent's acclaimed horror film about a grieving widow whose young son is convinced there's a monster in their house.
Lake Mungo (2008; PLEX, Tubi, Vudu, rentable): Continue your excursion into Australian horror cinema with this mockumentary about a haunting, featuring one of the best-executed jump scares ever.
Idle Hands (1999; rentable): Fright film history offers a handful (sorry) of "evil hand" movies, but I can't miss the opportunity to mention this forgotten relic, a horror stoner comedy featuring then-rising stars Devon Sawa, Seth Green and Jessica Alba.