There’s clearly a fascination out there for communicating with spirits from the beyond. Ghosts and the like have populated cinema for years, not to mention the existence of mediums, let alone various reality shows focused on hunting them down. Clearly, bustin’ still makes many feel good, which is the approach taken in Talk to Me, a creepy supernatural horror film that keeps the focus on teenagers. With that point of view, let alone the scrappiness in construction based on the work by directors Danny and Michael Philippou, a compelling story unfolds, highlighting a certain sense of wonder that comes from something with clear evil implications. It all makes for a sufficiently creepy film, featuring a very memorable hand.
Set in Australia, the hand in question does not belong to anyone (well, at least anyone living). It’s actually an embalmed hand said to have belonged to a gypsy. Covered in various markings and affixed in a position to resemble a handshake, I would want to do anything but that. However, it’s being used as a conduit for communicating with the dead. There are some rules. Only one person can hold it at a time, and they can only grip it for so long, or else the ghostly spirits it connects with will want to stay. No points given if you can guess what ends up happening…
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The way this film manages to skate around the obvious signs telling the characters not to do certain things is the way Talk to Me can portray the thrill and even the fun of conjuring up a spirit and being inhabited by them for a short period. One could align this with an audience’s willingness to go see a horror movie, to begin with, let alone participate in activities like skydiving. They want to be scared or experience a certain kind of rush. This film does what’s needed to convey that excitement through slick camera moves and editing, soundtrack choices, and an energetic cast. It makes it all the more effective to see these people feeling their best, so the shock hits hard when things start falling apart.
Sophia Wilde stars as Mia. She’s just lost her mother and barely speaks to her father (Marcus Johnson) at home. Instead, she spends most of her time at her best friend Jade’s (Alexandra Jensen) house, hanging out with her and Jade’s younger brother, Riley (Joe Bird). While Jade stays away from the hand, sensing nothing good to come from it, they gather with other friends who all dive into having a spooky, fun time. The turn comes when the younger Riley steps up and grips the hand for far too long because Mia believes her mother is speaking through him. This has a devastating effect on Riley’s physical well-being, to say the least, and leaves some of these living teens open to being terrorized by ghosts.
Spirits that don’t want to leave, and take every opportunity to fool those around, making them see things that aren’t there, often means our protagonists are in a no-win scenario. Good horror films can make these setups still feel less like a cheat. That’s another fortunate thing about Talk to Me. It gets away with a lot when it comes to letting the viewer work out ways they hope the lead characters can defeat whatever evil force is after them. At the same time, watching Mia being taken advantage of by spirits allows for plenty of creepy imagery and a sense of frustration in knowing the difficulty in fighting back that somehow still registers as gripping.
The Philippou brothers understand this as well. Having gained lots of popularity through their RackaRacka YouTube channel (over 2 billion views and millions of subscribers) and starting out in the industry by working as crew members on The Babadook (an Australian horror favorite), the twins have a good impression of what the young generation responds to, as well as a clear respect for the genre. As mentioned, there’s a lot of style in place and clever ways of working through on a limited budget. On top of that, staging jump scares or efficiently chilling scenes in ways that play off sound and simple visual tricks means plenty for a film when it’s rooted in its concept and the characters.
Working at a quick pace, the fact that Talk to Me doesn’t linger too long in any one sequence also helps the journey of this story. As the teenage heroes deal with a serious situation, the balance between arguing, bonding, and attempting to solve the problem keeps everything moving, even as their plight seems to inspire more dangerous occurrences to get in their path. Having the most visceral jolts come from self-inflicted harm makes the situation that much more dire, especially when considering the ages of all involved.
Through all this, Wilde deserves plenty of notice as the latest horror heroine to deliver a genuinely excellent performance. There’s a sense of fear in her that tracks based on what we know about her character, including what comes from certain levels of guilt and emotional distancing. All these aspects stack up in a way that makes the film feel more and more entrenched in how one person can take on the weight of so much pain and sorrow, and what can come from it. Not hurting at all is how the film manages to let Wilde deal with these feelings, perhaps find some emotional catharsis, and then be a part of an incredible ending moment for the film.
Not to be outdone, there is a lot of naturalness in how the other actors play along with each other. Working mainly with newcomers (and a good mom role for co-producer Miranda Otto), this film plays with the notion of being a solid coming-of-age story were it not for the cruel ghosts that push Talk to Me into being a genre flick. Still, there’s some strong work here, including Joe Bird’s turns when it comes to playing possessed. With Linda Blair’s Regan from The Exorcist still serving as the high standard, seeing Bird thrash around a couple of locations does plenty to make the viewer uncomfortable, let alone justify the astonishment experienced by the characters around him. It’s frightening stuff.
New voices in horror are exciting to see. Talk to Me is a film that earns the various scary beats it hits so brutally. The Philippou twins manage to throw enough at the audience to provoke a strong reaction and have done so with the spirit of other hungry young filmmakers that delivered classics for the genre. Whether or not this film connects with audiences on a similar level, being excited about smaller films like this is terrific. It shows the potential that’s out there and how all you need to do to be a part of it is shake hands and accept this creepy premise.