There’s a certain cultural flattening that’s come with the boom of horror cinema in the last 10 years, a tendency to want to group these films into one of two categories. In one box, there’s the “fun” horror films, the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously, and in the other, there’s the “elevated,” grimdark explorations of trauma that are designed to convince the public that horror can be serious. This binary, as horror fans know very well, is not real, and to prove it we get films like Talk to Me, the feature directorial debut of RackaRacka YouTube creators Danny and Michael Philippou. Fierce, fun, and steeped in youthful energy, it’s a film that’s willing to go to some truly dark places in its exploration of grief, death and what it means when we reach too far into the beyond, but it’s also never afraid to laugh along the way. That juxtaposition alone is enough to make it one of the year’s must-see horror films, an addictive thrill ride that never loses its own playful spin on some classic horror ideas.
Talk to Me is a séance story, specifically a séance story revolving around a severed, ceramic-encased hand with a mysterious history. These days, the hand is hanging out in the possession of some Australian teenagers, who break it out at parties for 90-second “talk to me” sessions in which partygoers can briefly commune with, and be possessed by, the dead. It’s a quick thrill, the kind of thing perfect for taking smartphone videos to share on social media, and it’s all so detached and laugh-worthy that people either think it’s fake or liken it to a more pedestrian thrill like a drug trip. But when teenage Mia (Sophie Wilde), who recently lost her mother, hears about the hand, she’s eager to see if she actually can reach the other side, where her lost Mom might be waiting. Her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) thinks it’s all fake, but she’s still willing to accompany Mia to a party, where a brief encounter with the hand will change both their lives.
This is, even non-horror devotees will notice, a riff on classic séance narratives in which humans open a door that’s not to be trifled with, and let something dark and dangerous out. Talk to Me never tries to mask its roots in time-honored formulas, but approaches its tropes and recognizable story beats with an earnestness that’s both endearing and frank. From the beginning, the Philippou brothers and co-writer Bill Hinzman delight in framing up a classic séance scene, as Mia digs in for her first encounter, surrounded by eager partygoers, ready to take a trip that no drug can provide. The filmmakers know they’re playing in familiar territory, and their love for it goes a long way.
But of course, Talk to Me doesn’t just work because it knows where it came from. It works because of where it’s going, which is a thrilling tonal juxtaposition of dark comedy and paranoid, grief-addled terror. As the film’s point-of-view character, Mia is set up right away as someone full of youthful, damn-the-consequences daring, something anyone who’s ever been to a high school party will recognize all too well. That daring, and what Mia does with it, is the source of the film’s relentless pacing and its often unexpected black comedy. Talk to Me recognizes both the sophomoric exploits of youth and the absurdity of our human response to death, and engages with both in very honest ways.
That honesty extends to Talk to Me‘s approach to character, which it delves into with depth and care thanks in part to an elegant, straightforward conceptual hook. We understand certain things about Mia and her friends immediately, and not just because they’re kids who go to parties and do stupid things like try to commune with the dead. Mia’s desire, which sets off the central conflict of the story, is as straightforward as the haunted hand that hooked us in the first place, and Wilde has an unnerving ability to cut straight to the core of the wounds her character is carrying. Once the viral video spectacle of the plot is put in motion, Talk to Me becomes about the consequence of one young woman’s desire to cope, anchored by great performances—that makes the horror to come wonderfully, often painfully, human.
And the horror, when it hits, hits with visceral intensity. Anyone who’s ever seen a RackaRacka horror short knows how well the Philippou brothers can craft a surprising scare, and those scares emerge with real ferocity in Talk to Me. From ghosts suddenly appearing once the code phrase is spoken in a séance to quick eruptions of human violence, Talk to Me is a very scary film, but the gags are about more than delivering on jumpscare thrills and outbursts of creative, chaotic gore. That’s all there, and it’s delivered with a real attention to craft, but what really makes the film work is the way Talk to Me creates an atmosphere of coiled-spring dread. Energetic camerawork from Aaron McLisky, atmospheric soundscapes from Cornel Wilczek, and of course the nightmarish feeling that any one of these character could unspool at any second all come together to deliver a film that’s always teetering on the brink, threatening to spill over into full-on madness.
At a time when we spend far too much energy trying to swing horror movies into one side or the other of a senseless binary, Talk to Me reminds us that fun and true existential terror don’t have to be mutually exclusive areas of storytelling. Talk to Me is as funny as it is frightening, as poignant as it is pulse-pounding, and the whole thing is rooted in a modern reality that feels like you could step into it tomorrow, which only adds to both the humor and the fear. It’s an all-out nerve-jangler, a horror movie that contains multitudes, and a thrilling reminder that good scary movies are both a blast to watch and a chilling, unsettling experience.
Director: Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou
Writer: Danny Philippou, Bill Hinzman
Starring: Sophie Wilde, Miranda Otto, Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio
Release Date: July 28, 2023
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.