TALK TO ME (2022)
A group of teenagers play at communicating with the spirits of the dead...
Almost every review of Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me mentions the twin brothers’ previous careers as YouTubers and their minor crew roles on Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). And certainly, some of the violent energy of the shorts on their YouTube channel ‘RackaRacka’ (as well as their more recently launched ‘Left on Red’) is visible in Talk To Me, along with some of the humour.
But the Babadook connection is more relevant because that was arguably the best horror movie of its year, and even if Talk to Me faces stiff competition in 2023, it’s certainly in contention. It may not be The Babadook but it’s infinitely more mature than the Philippous’ YouTube efforts (strikingly so for a debut, at times). And despite all the coverage given to their manic shorts, Talk to Me doesn’t feel YouTube-y at all. It feels like the work of big-screen filmmakers who, while operating within a genre and not eschewing its standard components, also recognise that real horror is ultimately personal and internal.
Talk to Me, set in Adelaide (where the twins grew up), begins at a large, loud party of young adults where a savage attack and almost immediate suicide, both brutal and out of the blue, set the tone for much of the movie: physical violence isn’t a major part of it in terms of screen time, but the intrusion of violence (both physical and emotional) into ordinary lives very much is.
The two characters involved in this incident don’t figure again, though they prove to be important to the backstory. Instead, the focus switches to Jade (Alexandra Jensen); her younger brother of about 14, Riley (Joe Bird); and most importantly her friend Mia (a standout Sophie Wilde), whose mother died a couple of years ago and who’s since been informally adopted by Jade’s family.
The trio go to a quieter party where the star attraction is a ceramic hand supposedly containing the actual hand of a dead medium within it, which can also summon spirits. (It’s an example of the film’s persuasiveness that, while Jade is sceptical, we accept without question the way all the other teens simply accept this idea—the Philippous have disbelief suspended already.)
A volunteer—Mia, in this case—is strapped into a chair, picks up the hand, and says “Talk to me.” An apparently random spirit will then appear to them, and if they say “I let you in” the spirit can possess their body. But (and there’s always a “but” when it comes to apparently harmless games with ghosts, isn’t there?), if the spirit is allowed to stay for more than 90 seconds, it may not leave…
That this comes to pass won’t surprise anyone, and nor will it that the relatively recent death of Mia’s mother also becomes a factor. What may be a surprise isn’t so much what happens but who it happens to and then where it leads—towards a great ending which is genuinely terrifying, sad, and perhaps the best thing about the film and even the equal of a similar sequence from Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones (2009).
Talk to Me also benefits from a strong cast, even if these teenagers come across as a little older than they should. Wilde’s performance, frankly emotional but never going too far, is essential to the film engaging us; Jensen, Bird, Marcus Johnson in a smaller role as Mia’s father and Miranda Otto in a sometimes hilarious one as Jade’s mother (constantly suspicious of nefarious teenage plans) all add extra dimensions, too.
Character and story are at the forefront, but the cinematography by Aaron McLisky serves them well, with lots of close-ups and nice lighting (though perhaps a bit too much near-darkness), as well as a handful of noticeably exquisite compositions. Bethany Ryan’s production design is successful in giving Jade’s home a sense of comfort, especially through her use of colour to contrast with the encroaching threats. And while composer Cornel Wilczek doesn’t do anything wholly original with the music score, his big walls of slowly-changing sound make an effective change from more predictable genre music.
Horror itself comes from several sources. There’s a fundamentally bleak takeaway about what happens to us after we die. There are specific circumstances—including, early on, the uncomfortable-to-watch death of an animal which Mia (significantly) refuses to put out of its misery despite Riley’s request—and there’s the misery of what’s going in Mia’s mind.
But there are more overt horror-movie touches too: not just the occasional eruptions of violence but also vocal changing during possession, vividly grotesque makeup, a well-executed dream sequence, and the sheer physicality of some moments (biting a hand, chewing feet, licking blood). The ceramic hand itself is wonderfully sinister.
Exploring these different kinds of horror is the main mission of Talk to Me, but it touches on a range of other themes at the same time: addiction (Mia says she “felt like she was glowing” when possessed), voyeur culture (terrible things obsessively filmed on phones), grief, mental illness, and the loss of self in a crowd.
All this fits seamlessly into the narrative, boding well for any future Philippou films; as does the occasional touch of referentiality (e.g. a Psycho drain shot). And even if the humour at times feels out-of-place, it’s often funny in its own right (a kid who’s grown up amidst Australia’s vehement anti-smoking public-health messages wonders if a single cigarette will give you cancer immediately).
In fact, although Talk to Me sags a bit between its powerful first act and even more powerful conclusion, there’s little that doesn’t work here. Family loss isn’t an original concept for a horror movie, nor are the perils of tampering with the unknown, or teenage protagonists. Indeed, there’s nothing new in Talk to Me…. but it’s all so well done that one can’t help being impressed, particularly if your only previous exposure to its creators was Ronald McDonald Chicken Store Massacre.
AUSTRALIA | 2022 | 95 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
directors: Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou.
writers: Danny Philippou & Bill Hinzman.
starring: Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Miranda Otto & Otis Dhanji.