A bundle of taut nerves stretched to their vomit-inducing breaking point, “Talk to Me,” the directorial feature debut from Australian Youtube brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, is the type of horror film whose effectiveness arises from its barebones simplicity. It asks: What if “Flatliners” was rendered as a Monkey’s Paw for the teenage audiences that fuel today’s viral videos? What would the consequences, outside of personal shame (and minor embarrassment), be for those fame addicts? The film’s answer to these questions is stunning, if not an unbearable nightmare.
“Talk to Me” hurdles, with curdling angst and rolling shock, through Mia (Sophie Wilde), a Black teen who wrestles with the death of her mom and her strained relationship with her father (Marcus Johnson) by becoming addicted to a sick game. The contest involves a scrawl covered plastered hand of dubious origins, outstretched for a shake. When the words “Talk to Me” are said, the hand allows the person holding it to see the dead. If you want more kicks, just say “I let you in,” and the spirit will even take over your body. Videos of these encounters are going viral all over the internet. So when Mia appears with her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), and Jade’s younger brother Riley (a potent Joe Bird), she can’t help but take a roll of the dice at trying out this demonic emblem.
There is, of course, a stated limitation: One mustn’t hold the hand for more than 90 seconds, or else the demons will remain in your body. In spite of the whiplash contortion inflicted upon the body and the slack-jawed degradation melding with a spirit does upon your face, the unsaid side effect is the addictive adrenaline rush an encounter with the undead gives you. Mia describes it as a glowing feeling. The lithe script by Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman perceptively connects that unbridled ecstasy with the trappings of social media fame. A sentiment that’s visually rendered by the swirling montage of Gomorran exuberance experienced by these group of teenagers taking turns communing with the undead. The thrills become so high, even Jade’s ultra-Christian boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) gets in on the act.
And yet, even with the roller coaster turns and the tension that arises from the ephemeral highs and lows of celebrity, the film has frustratingly little to say about internet popularity outside of the basic premise. Considering the Philippou brothers built the wildly popular Youtube channel RackaRacka, that shortcoming is not only odd. It’s disappointing.
Rather than acting as a salient cultural critique, the film’s sharpest appeal stems from the horror that naturally springs from its premise. Because when one of the visiting spirits is Mia’s mother, then the otherworld becomes intertwined with reality to devastating ends. This occurs despite Jade only being a bundle of pursed, stern looks rather than a fully fleshed out character (Miranda Otto as Jade’s mother is equally underutilized). It occurs despite Mia’s resentment toward her father, while felt by way of a depth of field and their clipped conversations, does not translate to her father becoming a palpable site of grief. Rather it happens successfully, similar to how Jordan Peele employs the wounded deer in “Get Out,” when Mia discovers a badly injured kangaroo in the middle of the road. The kangaroo as a metaphor for her guilt ridden relationship with her mom is an intelligent spin on Peele’s move, whereby the horror is not one of the body, but of the spirit.
That isn’t to say “Talk to Me” isn’t grotesque. The smoky black smeared makeup on the ghouls stoke maddening anxiety, while the visage of a splintered, swollen face nauseates in the best of ways. Nor does it say that director of photography Aaron McLisky’s camerawork isn’t sublime, especially in the film’s intricately staged, surprisingly distressing opening tracking shot. These components, along with the layered sound work, whereby screams are stacked atop screams, and Wilde’s physically demanding, and emotionally draining, performance, makes the stomach churn fast enough for you to forget to cover your eyes.
“Talk to Me” thrives on those tight crafts enlivening its uncomplicated premise, it thrums on unrestrained palpability, and like all great horror films, on the joining of ambiguous shadows with a gurgle of tension spewing music. Though that straightforwardness carries over to a far too simplistic ending, opening the door for more films in this mold; who cares? “Talk to Me” offers frights that’ll murder you long before the next movie arrives.
“Talk to me” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.