Ghostly games are a creepy hallmark of kids’ sleepovers and teenage gatherings—remember Bloody Mary?—but the party trick at the center of the new Australian horror Talk to Me is downright terrifying. A possession tale with an eye (and ear) for brutality, this film—which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and made its SXSW debut on Sunday—tells a ghost story viewers won’t soon forget.
Talk to Me’s opening is efficient, effective, and ominous, although its connection to the broader story only becomes clear later on. For most of the film, we follow teenage best friends Mia (Sophie Wilde) and Jade (Alexandra Jensen)—who have grown even closer after the death of Mia’s mother. Effectively the third sibling in Jade’s family, alongside her actual brother Riley (Joe Bird), Mia spends most of her time at Jade’s house in order to avoid the gloom she feels around her father, Max (Marcus Johnson).
There’s no ouija board at the center of Talk to Me; instead, Mia and Jade’s friends bring over an ominous-looking hand that supposedly connects users with the dead with a lit candle, a quick shake, and a three-word incantation. Unlike most party games, however, this one actually works—and it only becomes deadlier over time.
The less one knows about the plot from there, the better. For both the characters and viewers, Talk to Me is all about misdirection. There’s no major twist at the heart of this film, but the meaning of its relationship with the dead shifts over time, from fright to longing to panicked terror. The more one gets to know the dead, it seems, the further they stray from themselves.
A24 snatched up Talk to Me for North American distribution soon after its buzzy midnight premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. The film marks an impressively accomplished feature debut for twin directors and YouTubers Danny and Michael Philippou, as it toggles seamlessly between humor and gore. That dexterity might just be a byproduct of their online brand, which leans into that same ethos. The two also worked as crew members on 2014’s Aussie horror smash The Babadook.
But while the Babadook seemed to give a lot of people nightmares (before he became a queer icon), Talk To Me is not necessarily scary; instead, it’s intense and visceral. It takes a little while for all the pieces of the story to fall together, but once the story finds its footing, it never loses its stride. The sound department has done its job to make every violent blow land both on screen and in audiences’ bodies; whether it’s a head bashing into a tile wall or a pillow colliding with someone’s face, you can practically feel the contact. The shooting style is razor sharp, always in search of the optimal angle for a sudden stab or bodily contortion. (And there are quite a few.)
Miranda Otto is perfectly cast as Jade’s irreverent, knowing, and protective mother, Sue. She’s the kind of mom who always knows when her kids come home stoned, or when they’re having a party, but her protective instincts are far from authoritarian. She prefers to joke about how her kids will pay if they drink at said party. Sue’s bubbly, loving rapport with her kids makes her terror at what later becomes of them even more effective.
The film’s secret weapon, however, is Wilde, who never loses sight of her character’s vulnerability—even when she’s not entirely herself. It could be easy for viewers to turn on Mia somewhere during the middle of the proceedings, when her choices take on a certain kind of horror-movie illogic, but Wilde makes it impossible to do so. Her sweet charisma during early scenes is too appealing, and as her character becomes more frantic, Wilde makes that disorientation palpable.
Talk to Me’s final act is by far its most effective—fast-paced, chaotic, and lethal. The film’s final note is devastating, and its delivery borders on poetic. It’s the kind of ending that feels designed for a campfire, the kind of haunting tale preteens tell at sleepovers and at camp with flashlights glowing beneath their chins. It’s also the kind of ghost story that might just get under your skin and refuse to let go.
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