Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
An episode of The Sopranos (1999 – 2007) once had a character ask ‘why do people enjoy scary movies’? The answer given was ‘to experience the thrill of being terrified without the consequences’. This explains why audiences like being scared, but it doesn’t fully explain that horror can often deliver some of the best cinematic experiences imaginable. The horror genre isn’t given the fairest shake in critical discussions, being often written off as exploitative, cheap and trashy. However, as time goes on, we see that some of the most groundbreaking, entertaining, creative, thematically nuanced, emotionally impactful, and expertly crafted films ever made are horror. Examples include Psycho (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Carrie (1976), Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), The Shining (1980) or The Silence of the Lambs (1991). More recently, we’ve seen The Conjuring (2013), The Babadook (2014), Don’t Breathe (2016), Get Out (2017) and Hereditary (2018) elevate the genre to the highest highs. Talk to Me (2023) proudly continues to prove the genre’s merits.
Set in Adelaide, South Australia, we are introduced to Mia (Sophie Wilde), a 17-year-old struggling with the second anniversary of her mother’s passing. Feeling lonely and disillusioned, Mia goes to a house party with her friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird). This house party is one of many hosted by troublemakers Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio), who have also brought along a very peculiar object to these events. Specifically, a severed, embalmed hand of mysterious origin. The kids engage in a game where you take the hand and say “talk to me”, which allows the user to communicate with a deceased person. The next phase of the game is to say “I let you in”, which allows the spirit to possess the user. The connection must be severed in 90 seconds in order to prevent the spirit from creating a permanent bond, but that 90 seconds causes the user to have violent convulsions, which apparently feels extremely pleasurable (hence why these kids are happy to do this over and over). Unfortunately, one of the spirits Riley connects with turns out to be Mia’s deceased mum, which blinds her of reason and forces her to keep Riley connected for too long. This has severe and terrifying consequences which takes these kids down a violent path.
In the realm of horror films, ghosts, spirits, creepy artefacts and possessions are so commonly covered that it’s hard to imagine anyone finding anything new to do with them. How many more times can we see a ghost take over someone’s body, try to trick them into doing violent things, and give us a good scare in the process? Thankfully, the directors Michael and Danny Philippou have figured out a fresh arrangement of these tropes, delivering a possession story which feels unique. The ingredients are familiar, but the cocktail has never been mixed in this way before. This is most apparent in how the genre signifiers are built into an intriguing concept, which is given further purpose by the setting and characters.
Firstly, the structure allows the Philippou brothers to play with an endless list of relatable teenage problems. Most notably, delinquency, social acceptance and peer pressure (that one being of particular importance). These kids come into contact with a fascinating, exciting but ultimately dangerous artefact, but they are willing to forgo the danger in order to appear cool, and to experience the ‘high’ the object delivers. As such, the central message couldn’t be more clear, especially to young, impressionable people who have to contend with these issues on a daily basis. Filtering this message through such a terrifying lens aids in making this theme feel incredibly potent. Granted, the literal story is about spirits and possession, but you can completely expect that teenage viewers would be hesitant around drugs at parties after seeing Talk to Me.
The analysis of teenage peer pressure is especially effective due to the film’s spot on depiction of youthful energy. Most films with teenagers at the centre of the story end up feeling out of date, given that the writers are usually far removed from modern high school life by the time they are making films. Therefore, it’s very impressive whenever filmmakers are able to accurately capture the tone, cadence and thought processes of children. The characterisation of Talk to Me’s youthful protagonists and their peers doesn’t fall into Hollywood clichés, nor do they feel like they are written by adults. These are definitely the thoughts, feelings and actions of juvenile people, and the film works that into the reality of the narrative. Thus, Talk to Me feels completely justified when it veers into illogical character choices commonly found in horror movies, because it’s all part of the film’s thematic layers.
This is not the only area where Talk to Me shows unusually high levels of intelligence, as the filmmaking on display completely avoids the cheap and easy scares. Too many horror movies rely heavily on jump scares, gore or gratuity. Talk to Me never steeps to such lows, as the camerawork is deliberate, the tension is effectively built up, and the storytelling rests on the emotional stakes before it rests on the violence. Chances are that audiences will become completely engaged by story, regardless of whether they are fans of the genre or not. Effective direction can draw viewers into any world, and Talk to Me proves it. Sure, there are still plenty of moments which may be too much to handle for some, but that doesn’t diminish the film’s clever integration of horror tropes.
With that in mind, Talk to Me’s greatest achievement is that it is genuinely, spine-chillingly terrifying. Most horror films aren’t scary in the moment (as they generally feel very silly) nor do they stay with you very long after the credits roll. Talk to Me is the first horror film in a long time which is actually scary. Additionally, the experience won’t be easily forgotten, as there’s plenty of shocking concepts which you’ll be thinking about for days. This is achieved due to the films wonderfully crafted blend of physical, spiritual and psychological horror, finding a near perfect mix of everything the genre has to offer. With the Philippou brothers background being mostly in comedy on their YouTube channel, the fact that they’ve managed to pull this off is staggering.
Given that cinema is in a pretty sorry state at the moment, audiences hunger for fresh ideas has never been more insatiable. While this won’t solve that issue for fans of every genre, Talk to Me is a significant uplift for recent horror offerings. If anything, films like Talk to Me offer some hope that there’s still plenty of imagination left to mine.
Best way to watch it: During the day. You don’t want to watch this at night time.