Talk To Me is a hugely promising, punchy Aussie horror debut – and it’s just hit Netflix

Children shouldn’t play with dead things…but in Danny and Michael Philippou’s buzzed-about Talk To Me, you can totally understand why they do. Eliza Janssen gives the solid horror feature a handshake.

Gen Z are way past chanting “Bloody Mary” in front of a mirror, or giggling over a Ouija board. They need something more visceral, more fucked-up: an act that looks horrifying and exclusive when posted to their socials. Watching the Philippou brothers’ buzzy new horror film Talk To Me, you might feel tempted to reach out for a touch of the ultimate supernatural party game yourself. It looks like it might destroy your life, true…but with these kids being so bound up in grief and insecurity, contacting the dead could be only way to feel truly alive.

Filmed in their hometown of Radelaide, Danny and Michael Philippou’s feature debut takes them boldly from the world of viral YouTube horror comedy to the big leagues, especially with the legitimacy of hip Hollywood distribution house A24 backing the whole first effort. It might’ve been slightly oversold to horrorheads as a new height of never-before-seen terror, but at its best, Talk To Me still packs a grisly, dread-inducing impact. It’s even reminiscent of the promise we saw in the debuts of Sam Raimi and Ari Aster, paving the way for bolder, nastier things.

Sophie Wilde gives a fragile yet full-bodied performance as our hero Mia, who’s picked up a reputation for being a lil strange and extra ever since her mother died two years ago. You believe her as the kind of friend your family might sympathetically adopt as one of your own, even as your mum (a stern Miranda Otto) remains slightly suspicious of her risky energy. When some too-cool-for-school older kids (Zoe Terakes and Chris Alosio) whip out an embalmed psychic’s hand at a rowdy party, Mia is all too keen to push the occult knick-knack’s boundaries.

All she has to do is shake the dead hand, asking it round for a chat by saying the film’s title, and then invite it into herself for a full-on possession. She’s hooked right from her first trip to the afterlife, soon hitting it hard, again and again like an insatiable pothead getting greedy with their mate’s fancy bong.

Speaking to our own Steve Newall, the directors explained that they wanted to avoid moralising their film’s addictive horrors as a metaphor for teen drug use: “we didn’t want to do a PSA film, or have anything be hitting you over the head.” Talk To Me will serve nicely as a chilling sleepover movie for daring teens, but parents need not worry about how bloody fun this updated version of black magic looks onscreen. It’s so immediately clear that Mia and co. are taking the game too far, with a ring of smartphone flashlights and cackling onlookers adding a sadistic level of spectatorship to each player’s already-scary experience with the hand.

The horror here is kept refreshingly free of James Wan-style CGI jumpscares, instead relying on gnarly makeup and some eccentric, ghoulish character designs to make the film’s infernal vision stand out. While I could’ve used a few more climactic scares as the film escalates, the movie’s middle act will meet your gore-hound expectations, with toes being sucked (ugh) and eyeballs getting plucked. Little nuances of region-specific Aussie-ness keep some generic stretches of the film from feeling too familiar: characters are described as “sooks” or “full schitz”, and a possessed Mia’s snarled warning that a demon will “split ya!” sounds like something a guy might yell at you on the Frankston train line.

The party is well and truly over once the little brother of Mia’s concerned bestie Jade (Alexandra Jensen) is allowed in on the fun: Joe Bird gives serious Linda Blair vibes as this innocent dragged into hell, taking the film’s stakes up about twenty notches. But the path from there to a gut-wrenching conclusion is slightly clumsy, with fruitless detours back to the hand’s previous victims, who may have been best left in the movie’s punchy cold open. As Mia begins to lose herself to the hand’s visions of her dead mum and disconnected dad, the supernatural logic becomes somewhat nebulous for us in the audience, too, which adds to the film’s sense of dread but diminishes the exhilarating feel established in act one.

Talk To Me remains a satisfying and promising debut horror yarn, though. From its title to the tangible, teasing presence of the mummified hand that reaches into our character’s young lives, the Philippous have kept their first go simple in all the right places, adding care and detail to their scares that suggests a well-mapped internal canon. I have to say, even after seeing the disastrous consequences of playing necromancer with a room full of sozzled teens, I really wanna have a go on the hand, too: read the graffiti on its surface, channel some waterlogged, purgatory-bound dead folk. I wouldn’t be dumb enough to get carried away. Surely.

Originally published on Flicks on July 31, 2023