SXSW 2023: TALK TO ME
A gnarly slice of Aussie horror that combines terror and trauma with a brilliant horror hook
Possession has fueled countless horror films for years. A dalliance with the dead or demons, allowing evil in, not just to the host, but this plane of existence. Talk to Me revels in the legacy of films like It Follows, Event Horizon, and The Ring, while planting the genre in the modern day, relating itself to societal issues such as substance abuse, and the growing sense of detachment that comes of this age, and through obsessions with social media.
Mia (a breakout performance from Sophie Wilde) is estranged from her father Max (Marcus Johnson) after her mother’s apparent suicide 2 years earlier. Through her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), her younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), and the pair’s mother Sue (Miranda Otto), Mia has found a surrogate family of sorts. A ballast as she contents with the emotional storm she weathers. Word spreads through social media and the schoolyard of a local craze, showing some of their friends engaging in an apparent occult ritual and ensuing possession. Recordings showing the muscle spasms and guttural voices of otherworldly forces, and the aftermath, as these teens are left elated by the adrenaline rush.
Seeking entertainment, the skeptical Mia, Alexandra and Riley, along with Alexandra’s boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) join one of these parties, and Mia is the first to step up to try the experience. She is presented with a ceramic relic, supposedly housing the embalmed hand of a medium who was able to commune with the dead. The instructions are simple, grasp the hand, speak the words “talk to me”, and a random specter will appear to her. A further invocation, “I let you in”, extends an invitation for possession, with the caveat that if the connection lasts beyond 90 seconds, you may not be able to shake the darkness you let in — a fate that is glimpsed in the film’s brutally effective opening.
A dark 90+ seconds follow, with Mia’s wracked body spewing vile and ominous words towards her friends. The ensuing fear on Riley’s face is matched by the elation on Mia’s. She is hooked. Not just by the rush of the experience, but the dark visions she is left with after hanging on just a bit too long. Visions that suggest this relic may be a means to uncovering information about her mother’s death. The groups continued practice of the ritual leave one of their number in incredible danger, both physically and spiritually, and Mia’s visions seem to offer a way out for them all from a malevolent force that has entered their lives.
At its core, the film is about communication. Teens looking for a connection after losing a parent, being ostracized in school, relationship troubles, or general loneliness. Sharing a space with something unnatural is also a means of escape. Become a passenger in your own body, removed from the numbness or pain you feel in life. A temporary respite that comes with an intense rush, that is sustained by the whole thing essentially being turned into a spectator sport by the circle of kids recording and sharing what unfolds. In all, it's a rather uncomplicated metaphor, and one that thankfully doesn’t get bogged down by any efforts to overly complicate the innate horror of what these kids are doing, or the fallout of it.
Talk to Me marks a precise and potent debut from Australian twin brothers Danny and Michael Philipou, who combine a superb horror hook with their understanding of Gen Z and social media. The script isn’t overworked or overloaded, leveraging instead the authentic talents of its young cast to sketch and explore normal teen angst that is amplified within by the corruption of these occult acts. Witnessing the giddy enthusiasm of the directors (conveyed in the film’s Q&A), what impresses is the focus and restraint brought to bear, as well as the mature handling of tonal shifts. Talk to Me is superbly paced, with a mounting infusion of tension, only released by punctuations of violence and triggering of trauma. Visiting some very dark places, the film weaves in levity, notably with a playful montage of demonic possessions, some of which feel like a tip of the hat to the Raimi school of horror. Some of the commentary on social media feels a little superficial, and the final act loses a little cohesion, but the final parting shot brings everything home. Aaron McLisky’s cinematography is potently moody, while the unnerving sound design from Emma Bortignon and discordant score from Cornel Wilczek cap off a film that ensures you feel off kilter from start to finish.
Talk to Me serves as a fable about addiction and unresolved trauma, and how without real connection, it can fester, spread, and harm. The Philipou twins lay down a statement of their talents with this impressively crafted tale, one built around a superb hook that conveys an exquisite built-in lore and a potential legacy for this lean, mean, slice of horror.