Whilst it’s fair to be tired of the “elevated horror” tag that so many genre pieces aim for nowadays, and the attachment of the-little-studio-that-could A24 only fans the fire, one needn’t worry with Talk To Me, an Australian-made horror effort that was acquired by the aforementioned studio for US distribution following wild reactions out of the Midnight program at this year’s Sundance.
Fair to say inspired by the likes of Evil Dead and Flatliners, Talk To Me sees directing duo Danny & Michael Philippou announce their horror inclinations in a particularly bold fashion, doubling down on the cruelty that can be found within the genre, smattering it with a healthy dash of relatable humour, before tying it with a throughline of grief and trauma.
Opening with a one-shot shocker that speaks to their confidence behind the camera and their penchant for unexpected brutality – the image that hits just before the title card is bound to earn an audible reaction from its viewers (mainly because you have no warning in looking away) – the Philippous are all too aware that Gen Z make it far too easy to riff on their incessant compulsion to post everything online, which makes for the perfect narrative introduction.
An embalmed hand that’s been making the rounds amongst curious teens looking to get their next fix has become the stuff of viral legend. High-schoolers have learnt to use the hand as a means to both communicate with spirits and be used as a vessel of sorts, and whilst it does indeed terrify them initially, it ultimately becomes a game of losing control for a determined amount of time, acting as a source of amusement for the surrounding watchers in the room who take pleasure in talking to whichever spirit happens to come through.
Most of the participants see it as an amusing way to make a video for their social media accounts, but for Mia (Sophie Wilde, absolutely dominating the entire film) its novelty wears off when she speaks to her deceased mother (Alexandria Steffensen), whose death is already something of a mystery, through Riley (Joe Bird), the impressionable younger brother to her bestie, Jade (Alexandra Jensen).
Breaking the 50-second rule that Mia and the unofficial gatekeepers of the hand, Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio), impart, Riley’s possession leads to a blurring of realities, with the doorway to the spirit realm compromised in the process. Whilst there has been a few well-timed jump scares between Riley’s possession and the aforementioned opening shot, the Philippous take no prisoners during Riley’s take-over, with the phrase “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” being taken quite matter-of-factly.
From hereon, a sense of dread permanently lingers over every frame of Talk To Me, with us as viewers always on a certain edge that the rug will ripped out from under us without so much as a warning. Any scene that feels as if it could be safe is heightened through Cornel Wilczek‘s haunting score and Geoff Lamb‘s sure-fire editing, blending the realities of both worlds together, resulting in a lean, fat-free horror feast that’s furthered in its satisfaction by a committed Wilde; the actress anchoring proceedings as she balances the traumatised facets of both her realities with a believability that, once again, speaks to how truly demanding the horror genre can be for its performers.
Confidently and competently made, Talk To Me not only stands as another stellar example of how creative directors can be within the restrictions of a relative budget, but that Australians and the horror genre react to one another with a promising vigour that deserves continued, and constant, exploration.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Talk To Me is screening in Australian theatres from July 27th, 2023.
Talk To Me was originally reviewed as part of our 2023 Sundance Film Festival coverage.