Might just make even the skeptics think twice about playing around with the supernatural.
This article is part of our 2023 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Follow along as we check out the films and filmmakers appearing at the first fest of the new year. In this entry, Rob Hunter reviews Danny & Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me.
Not every horror trope works for every horror fan, and for some of us (okay fine just me) one such example is possession films. The concept is dull on its face in part because a character acting beyond their control is typically uninteresting due to a lack of culpability, regret, and human emotion. Some films get around that by delivering in other ways or putting the focus on other characters, and one of the best to do so is also one of the newest. Talk to Me is a mean slice of possession horror from Australia, and it’s taking no prisoners as it guides you by the hand straight into hell.
Mia (Sophie Wilde) is still grieving the death of her mother two years ago, but she’s found some solace spending time with her best friend Jade’s (Alexandra Jensen) family. Jade’s mother (Miranda Otto) and younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) are nothing but welcoming, and the road to healing is paved in their kindness. The teens take an unwise detour, though, when a party with friends eschews drinking and canoodling in favor of a seance of sorts with a severed hand. You grip the hand, say “talk to me,” and a spirit appears to you — and then you verbally welcome it in. It’s a fun parlor trick as volunteers are temporarily possessed, but if the connection isn’t severed in time the dead can take up permanent residence in the host’s body. That’s bad enough, but it gets worse once you realize where the person’s mind and soul are evicted to.
Talk to Me opens with a brief and shocking glimpse into the madness to come, and after taking time to craft character motivations and relationships it ramps right back up again with carnage and cruelty. The one very simple rule is broken — a necessary lapse in logic for most horror films to move forward — and things quickly spiral out of control with Mia scrambling to pick up the pieces. The tease of reconnecting with her mother tilts into a nightmare she’s responsible for, and as grief shifts towards guilt the brutality of the dead grows past the point of no return.
The cast is solid across the board, but the bulk of its raw emotion rests on Wilde’s shoulders. Happily, she carries the weight beautifully and creates a character who tests audience loyalty while still holding on to our concern and care. It’s a balancing act required for the film to be more than a mere shock factory, and she succeeds through high emotion, panic, and pure fear.
Directors Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou — creators of the popular RackaRacka YouTube channel — have found great success with high energy shorts built less on narrative or character and more on exaggerated violence and crass humor (not a knock, some of it’s funny!) You’d expect their feature debut to display some of the same, but while Talk to Me puts the pedal to the floor at times the film succeeds in large part because of its emotional core. The script, co-written by Bill Hinzman and Danny Philippou, makes Mia’s grief clear, and while it doesn’t exonerate her actions they’re made at least somewhat understandable. Guilt follows a similar path as it leads Mia towards choices a more rational and less damaged mind wouldn’t make.
Of course, horror fans will be mighty pleased that she does what she does as it leads to some spectacular carnage and creepy scenes. Not all visiting spirits are the same, and while some simply make their hosts act in embarrassing ways — they drool, they make out with dogs — others are more malicious. Far, far more. The horror is dialed even higher with a brief look into hell itself where we see absolute atrocities being committed against one poor soul. It’s arguably too brief of a glimpse, but it teases a world familiar to fans of 2015’s Turkish gem Baskin.
It’s easy to see a path forward with this story that expands on those ideas in more detail, and a smart distributor/studio could easily turn Talk to Me into one hell of a franchise. The key ingredient here is that damn hand — a ceramic mold that looks like modern art but holds a fleshy secret beneath the plaster. New owners, new stories, and all that, but even if that doesn’t come to pass the filmmakers can rest easy knowing that they take the movie out on a high note. The ending more than satisfies, and while there’s room to continue, the horror hits even harder if it’s left alone.