Talk to Me Review: A24 Horror Movie Offers Brutal Ghost Story
A24’s Talk to Me reinvents the demonic possession film into a game played among friends. It’s chilling.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that those who play stupid games win stupid prizes. Or in the more modern parlance, if you fuck around, you find out. In spite of these colloquialisms, and many just like them, anyone who was ever young has played these games and fucked around much. Whether it’s by way of drinking from a keg at a party, passing around a vice that was of a more illegal vintage, or simply driving over the speed limit, we have a tendency in our youth to do stupid things for the thrill, especially if a pal is urging us to always take things further.
Twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou appear to have taken the thing to its absolute extreme in Talk to Me, a new indie chiller which has hit the international film festival circuit so hard that it even cast a spell over genre tastemakers A24, who bought the Australian movie out of Sundance and brought it to blankets of anxious shrieks this past weekend during the opening night of SXSW. In the first-time feature from a pair of hungry filmmakers who cut their teeth on the YouTube channel RackaRacka, Talk to Me conjures the familiar sight of a group of teenagers gathering in a circle to transgress a taboo—only their highs are not derived from drinks or drugs, albeit both are in plentiful supply. Nay, the big kick in this room is to commune with the dead… and invite spirits in to possess their bodies and souls.
It’s an ingenious idea for a horror movie, and much of the thrill that the Philippous achieve is in how natural their disturbing parable is presented. Central characters Mia and Riley are played by real young people Sophie Wilde and Joe Bird, respectively, with an understated naiveté. They’re normal kids in the Aussie suburbs who are encouraging each other to do what they’re told is a good time: letting the whites of their eyes be replaced by a sickening blankness, and their voice transformed into hissing sounds from the long deceased. They even have mates recording the spectacle for IG and TikTok, immortalizing the moment they became vessels for the souls of the damned.
You don’t need Talk to Me’s unnerving opening sequence, which shows what happens when one of these kids has been possessed too many times, to know that the come-down is going to be severe. Still, the hangover leaves behind one of the bitterest horror movies we’ve had in recent years.
The facilitator of all that misery is the severed hand of a deceased medium that’s being passed around high schools like an urban legend. Apparently a friend of Mia’s procured the body part from another spooked lad who claimed he didn’t need it anymore. The hand is a conductor between the living and the dead, and when you hold it, the invisible barrier between these worlds is broken. When someone says “talk to me” while shaking the extremity, an often ghoulish visage becomes visible to only the speaker’s eyes. And when that same person says “I let you in,” well, things get worse…
Mia is neither Goth nor into the occult. In fact, she’s mostly just trying to get by after her mother died by suicide. She prefers to spend her days now as the surrogate daughter of Riley’s slightly happier family. The latter is doted on by a caring if often distracted single mother, Sue (Miranda Otto), as well as his older sister Jade (Alexandra Jensen). None of them speak of their anxieties or paranoia, but this group is noticeably wounded, which is why they’re eager for a laugh with mates on the weekends. And when one of those friends vouches for games with severed hands and demonic entities, it certainly sounds livelier than another night brooding over the parents who aren’t here.
The strength of the Philippou brothers’ direction is in how measured it seems. Despite cutting their teeth on a website who’s algorithm rewards instant gratification, the filmmakers eschew the kind of cheap jolts or campfire pacing the pulpy material would seem to suggest. Instead there’s a relentless mundanity about Mia and Riley’s home lives that makes the idea of macabre seances seem exciting. The communions also provide a showcase for the splashier side of the filmmakers’ craft.
By allowing the supernatural element of the film to slowly infest the rest of the picture, the effect is not unlike watching rot encroach from the fringes of the frame for about 90 minutes. It’s also akin to how addiction can slowly submerge an individual you know under the darkest shadow. The otherworldly consequences that Mia and Riley face manifest like mental illness, only with the heightened depravity of it taking on the shape of a child cackling as he laps at a pool of his own blood. The possession scenes are disturbing not because of smash-cut editing or contortionist acrobatics, but due to the perverse feeling of awful, irreversible corruption is taking root. Wilde and especially Bird are also unsparing at inhabiting these descents.
It is easy to see why the film appealed to A24, the indie studio that also picked up Robert Eggers’ The Witch at Sundance and took Ari Aster’s Hereditary to SXSW. Talk to Me refreshes (or, sigh, “elevates”) well worn horror concepts and reveals emerging new talent in the genre. However, we suspect the more outwardly pulpy sensibility and setup of Talk to Me will make it an especially potent cocktail for modern young audiences who can recognize timeless insecurities in this distinctly current representation of stupid games and the prizes they engender. It also culminates with a brutal ending that’s the best this genre has seen so far in the 2020s. You can’t help but let it in.
Talk to Me premiered at SXSW on March 10 and opens in the U.S. on July 28.