Horror movies have a tendency to get repetitive, and not just because of sequels designed to cash in and strip mine a premise. Hollywood is a reactionary place, with producers rushing to duplicate the success of others rather than run the risk of — gasp — trying something new. Every now and again, however, the horror genre gets a much-needed shot of adrenaline that jump starts imaginations and sends viewers flocking to the cinema.
Get out your hypodermics, kids.
Talk to Me, the debut feature from writer/directors Danny and Michael Philippou, plunges the adrenaline syringe deep into the arm of viewers, leaves it there, and proceeds to spend the ensuing 95 minutes keeping them frazzled. We never thought we would write such high praise for a directing duo that began its career on YouTube. Nonetheless, the Brothers Philippou have crafted one of the most thrilling horror films in recent memory, and done so on a minimal budget.
A group of Australian teenagers have discovered a new social media fad. A ceramic hand — allegedly encasing an actual human member — can open a dialogue with the souls of the dead. Mia (Sophie Wilde) and Jade (Alexandra Jensen) attend a party with some friends to see if the rumors about the hand have any merit. The pair have a long history as best friends, with Mia becoming an unofficial big sister to Jade’s younger brother, Riley (Joe Bird). Riley and Jade’s mother, Sue (Miranda Otto), also dotes over Mia, who lost her own mother to a drug overdose.
Mia, Jade, Riley, and Jade’s boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) all get to see the hand’s power in action: for exactly 90 seconds, a participant dissociates from his body and experiences a rush of euphoria. Everyone else in the room then get to watch as various spirits inhabit the participant’s body. Exceed the 90 seconds, and the spirits can take permanent control. At first, the kids love the novelty of talking to the dead. Then Mia makes contact with her dead mother, and things take a dangerous turn.
The Philippous populate Talk to Me with lots of hand imagery. On an absolute level, this is a story about severed connections and loneliness. Mia wants to speak to her dead mother again. Jade has trouble relating to Mia because of her relationship with Daniel. Riley wants to party with the big kids, but feels like an outsider.
These feelings of isolation drive the characters to commune with the hand, despite the obvious danger. They don’t want a thrill. They want affection. They want community. That motivation makes the actions of the characters—no matter how ludicrous—relatable. It also helps that all the young performers actually look like real teenagers, rather than 20 and 30-somethings slathered under make-up.
The obvious antecedent to Talk to Me is Flatliners, Joel Schumacher’s cult film about a group of med students who “die” momentarily in order to make contact with the dead. Whereas that movie relied on special effects, the Philippous adopt a more unorthodox approach. The pair achieve most of their supernatural images through a combination of clever editing and in-camera tricks. Apart from a handful of obvious computer-altered shots, everything here has a physical feel to it, which adds to the tension.
Horror movies also have a habit of either A) showing the monster to the audience before the characters see it to create suspense or B) having the spooky creature jump out in front of the camera, in essence yelling “BOO!” at the audience. The Philippous do the opposite in Talk to Me. Characters see the frightening thing before the audience does. Their horrified reactions ratchet up the tension a considerable degree. The audience in our screening of Talk to Me seemed to want to climb the walls.
That the camera lingers on the faces of the characters also gets at the directors’ boldest choice. The success of Talk to Me rests almost solely on the performances of the actors to sell the horror. That requires some very difficult work from Bird, and in particular, from Wilde. Had either of their performances faltered for even a moment, Talk to Me would have collapsed under its own weight. Bird approaches his role with total abandon, making Riley by turns both lovable and repulsive. His youth and inexperience (this is, to date, his fourth role) make his work here all the more impressive.
A Star Is Born with Sophie Wilde
History, however, will remember Talk to Me as a star-making performance for Sophie Wilde. Horror movies seldom allow an actor to run the full emotional gamut in a movie, and even then, only a few titles — The Exorcist, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Sixth Sense — demand as much attention to the acting.
Wilde commands the screen in every frame of Talk to Me, giving a performance that’s both heartbreaking and unnerving. This is her second movie, but it will not be her last. If she makes wise career choices, Wilde could follow in the footsteps of Cillian Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Sigourney Weaver: performers that had breakout roles in horror films and went on to long and beloved careers in the movies. She’s damn good here.
Talk to Me doesn’t rely on heavy special effects, gratuitous violence, a high body count, or an established franchise to tell its story. On the contrary, it depends on the performances of its actors and relatable characters to draw an audience in. Despite a ludicrous premise, every moment of the film feels grounded in our reality. With their debut feature, Danny and Michael Philippou have proven that ingenuity and creativity in cinema do not require massive budgets or special effects to thrill, horrify, and yes, entertain.
Apropos of nothing, Talk to Me arrives in cinemas via acclaimed art house studio A24, the same artists behind such sleeper hits as Midsommar, Heredity, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and the TV series Euphoria. While “big league” studios continue to churn out sequels, reboots, and cannibalized versions of animated films (looking at you, Disney) in a real-life horror movie of sorts, it’s comforting to know that one studio remembers that movie magic begins with a captivating story and inventive talent, not a title. Go see Talk to Me and prepare to hear screams … followed by applause.
A24’s Talk to Me opens in cinemas on July 28.