Give a group of drunken teenagers a supernatural artefact, light the touch paper, retreat, and observe… It’s a set-up that has worked for horror films many times, perhaps with a dusty Ouija board to hand, often with quotable rules and rituals attached. With Talk to Me, Australian director twins Danny and Michael Philippou add the pursuit of viral infamy for a flawed but full-blooded twist on horror lore: even if the brothers are operating with formula, they know how to make the clichés work for them.
With YouTube experience under their belts from their RackaRacka channel, they know how to get a fast, tight grip on viewers. We start with a bumping party in full flow, where an agitated hunt for someone leads to a sharp-edged barrage of twists. Quick, get it on TikTok.
Showing confidence in pacing, the Philippous don’t rush to connect this episode to the rest of the film. Instead, they take time to introduce Mia (Sophie Wilde), a young woman grieving on the second anniversary of her mother’s death. Estranged from her father Max (Marcus Johnson), Mia spends most of her time with best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and her younger brother Riley (Joe Bird). Meanwhile, Jade and Riley’s mother, Sue (Miranda Otto), looks on with warmth and worry as the girls party hard.
At which point, a hand beckons. At a party, fellow revellers unveil the embalmed hand of a late medium, a mitt with some tricks up its non-existent sleeve. Tied to a chair for her own safety – if you’re thinking ‘uh-oh’ here, hold that thought – and lit by candle, Mia has to grip the hand and say, ‘talk to me,’ in order to bear lone witness to a dank spectre. If she adds, ‘I let you in,’ the full possession trip follows – dilated pupils and all, ready for filming and posting on social media. The catch? A timer must be set for a social-media-friendly 90 seconds. You don’t want the ghost getting too comfy in its new home.
And you don’t need to know how to count to guess that things don’t run on time, either. Without spoiling anything, a door you can open one way can, of course, be opened the other way. But the Philippous still have plenty of surprises to deliver, and plenty of shock tactics with which to rattle and repulse. One possession leaves a key character hospitalised after an aggravated bout of head-banging against all available hard surfaces, leaving their face like pulverised steak. And things turn worse from there.
As the boundary lines between the living and the dead blur, the Philippous navigate subtle chills and well-timed jump scares skilfully. Practical effects and destabilising camerawork combine to suggest mounting chaos with impressive control; the sound mix bruises, too, making sure you wince when heads crunch. Having laid the groundwork, the brothers aren’t too proud – to paraphrase Stephen King – to go for the gross-out. Scenes involving kissy dogs, tasty toes, and bloody bathroom floors give audiences’ gag reflexes a good workout.
Alongside co-writer Bill Hinzman, the Philippous are also smart enough to write about what they know. Even if they don’t develop the online angles as thoroughly as they might, Talk to Me at least touches on the hunger for something genuine that lurks within people’s addictions to social media. Loss, trauma, and app frights have become familiar touchstones for modern horrors, true. But the brothers bring a teasing power to their exploration of our longing for authentic connections in over-connected and - debatably - inauthentic times.
Strong characters and casting provide ballast for these strategies. The larky posturing of partying teens is played to convincing and cunningly strategic effect, setting us up nicely for the moment when the fun curdles. Equally impressively, the brothers tether the terrors to believable relationships, be they fraught, conflicted or affectionate. Otto is a grounding presence as the protective mother, whose initially earthy, playful demeanour ensures her later distress lands all the more powerfully.
Best of all, Wilde dominates proceedings with a relatably anguished performance, providing the kind of emotional anchorage that makes sense of indie outfit A24’s (Everything Everywhere, et al) decision to pick the film up in the US. Even when Mia’s behaviour and choices become tougher to swallow in the film’s second half, Wilde keeps us hooked.
The Philippous reaffirm full control for the climax, using a returning image to confirm guiding hands at work. The final minutes turn Talk to Me into something almost lyrical, a kind of urban myth you could imagine being shared between parties and campus halls. The filmmakers also blow out the candle at a flab-free 95 minutes. Turns out that’s enough time to get inside you and take possession.
Talk to Me is in UK cinemas on July 28 and in US cinemas now.