Talk to the Hand

‘Talk to Me,’ an eerie, self-assured horror debut from Down Under

Look past the jump scares and the crimson gore: the truly dramatic pull of a good horror movie is sorrow, a piercing, suffocating sadness that seeps into your marrow. That’s what the wickedly eerie paranormal tragedy Talk to Me delivers, slowly at first and then with an overwhelming suffusion. The pale, rotting, stringy-hair, wild-eyed spirits here aren’t just chilling. They’re miserable, restless souls: torn, confused, craven, mischievous, deceitful, sometimes even avenging. Especially avenging. Beware the wrathful wraiths.

TALK TO ME ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Danny and Michael Philippou
Written by: Danny Philippou, Bill Hinzman
Starring: Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Miranda Otto, Zoe Terakes, Alexandra Steffensen
Running time: 95 mins

The opening scene sets the meatheads-meet-mediums mood, as a sober-faced young man navigates a pool-party rager looking for his brother. He finds him inside, dazed, mysteriously lacerated, and quietly wielding a knife—which the brother plunges into his kin’s chest before shoving it into his own head.

Cut to Mia (Sophie Wilde), a lonely, forlorn teen feeling a boost of depression on the second anniversary of her mother’s suicide. Her widower dad (Marcus Johnson) is essentially a specter in her life: he’s seen hovering in her background, blurry and out of focus. He calls her cell, repeatedly, and she ghosts him. Mia needs connection, and finds it with best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and her mousy little brother Riley (Joe Bird). Their hard-working single mom Sue (Miranda Otto), loving but overbearing, leans into distrustful parent-mode, correctly presuming that they sneak out of the house and have parties in her absence. But they’re all good kids, despite the temptations surrounding them.

And they are tempted, especially Mia, who’s obsessed with videos that obnoxious classmate Hayley (Zoe Terakes) keeps posting of zombified people, eyes wildly dilated, acting bizarre, while the people around them hoot and holler. She pressures Sue to go with her over to Hayley’s and see what’s going on. The crowd that’s already there is ready for the conjuring: Hayley and her friend Joss (Chris Alosio) pull out a ceramic hand severed at the forearm and covered in graffiti—people’s names, but also pleading. I WANT TO SEE YOU, one line reads. I KNOW WHAT YOU DID,” says another. BE QUIET. SPEAK. After being strapped to a chair, hold the hand and say “talk to me.” A dead person, different every time, will appear only to the holder. Then, for a real ride, say “I let you in.” Possession follows.

Pupils dilate like black pools, weird voices come through. The behavior is feral, even violent. Don’t do it for more than 90 seconds, though. “They’ll want to stay,” warns Hayley. Guess what? Mia accidentally does it for longer. But everyone loves it—and Mia loves that everyone loves it. She wants to do it again. And now meek little Riley wants to try.

The genius idea in Talk to Me is making the portal-opening hand seem like a drug. It’s a crazy-scary-fun rush, a thrill, a quick-acting head trip for the one experiencing it and for everyone who watches. And it’s an express pass to being cool, to bonding, to fitting in. The only problem is when Mia’s dead mom suddenly makes an appearance.

Talk To Me
Things are not going well in ‘Talk To Me,’ directed by the Phillippou Brothers.

That plot twist deepens the emerging agony in Talk to Me, but it also signals the genre-conforming superficiality of the second half, where characters become more predictable, the narrative less surprising, and the climax borderline silly. Its coda, though, is rapturously devastating, with a full-circle final shot that’s tight, clever, and absolutely heartbreaking.

Twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou are the debut directors of this Aussie import as well as the masterminds behind the horror comedy YouTube channel RackaRacka, a collection of caffeinated frat-bro shorts supercharged with pranky pluck. Talk to Me is a major leap away from those lo-fi larks and into remarkably self-assured, stylish filmmaking. They also, by the way, crewed on fellow countryman Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a delicious street-cred footnote for their nascent career and possibly a clue to why they seem so receptive to psychological terrors as well as supernatural spooks.

The Philippous’ sensitivity to the vagaries and vulnerabilities of the teenage experience are also a big key to their film’s success—it’s free of the condescension that some teens-in-peril flicks exploit. Too bad the narrative loses its originality towards the end. Talk to Me doesn’t always stick the landing, especially when it stumbles into off-brand Blumhouse territory. But this creepy ride lingers like a restless poltergeist.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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