Australian filmmaking duo Danny and Michael Philippou make a harrowing leap from YouTube sensations to the big screen with their feature film debut, Talk to Me. This spine-tingling chiller cleverly splices together the eerie depths of psychological horror with shocking supernatural thrills and gruesome practical effects.
Coloured by an A24 paintbrush and entwined in a narrative rope akin to the distinctive curses of J-Horror, the debut feature from the twin brothers from Down Under emerges. The film harbours resplendently visceral demonic violence reminiscent of Demons or The Evil Dead. Echoing It Follows, there is a subtle nod to the real-life societal horrors of addiction and modern-day social isolation — loneliness unmitigated by the latest apps on our phones. It weaves strong, character-based emotional drama around grief, bearing more resemblance to the harrowing horror dramas of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo than to the typically sentimental American genre drama. Explored through a literal device that provides a doorway into the ghostly beyond, the film offers a more accessible suite of scares, eschewing the conventional jump-scare tropes.
We join a house party that produces a startling and uncanny opening, but it’s superseded by an incident on a nighttime highway concerning a wailing animal left trapped on the road. Its loneliness in the face of death links neatly to the theme and oppressive atmosphere that follow. Here, the psychological and supernatural become one in the form of a haunted young woman, Mia (Sophie Wilde), who has become distant from her father, co-opting intimacy instead with her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), who lives alone with her mother Sue (Miranda Otto). Mia also harbours an affectionate and paternal connection to her friend’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), with portentous outcomes. As they encounter an online video that depicts their classmates becoming temporarily possessed by clutching an ornamental human hand etched with names and symbols, they’re naturally eager to join in the fun. Why, you might ask? Because there is a simple rule: while clutching the hand and speaking the words “talk to me,” a spirit shall appear before you, and followed by the words “let me in,” you shall be possessed, but only for a minute. So long as your friends pull the hand away and blow out the ritualistic candle in time.
Despite the obvious dangers, the thrill is irresistible — which, if you’ve ever seen this writer with a KFC bucket and a tub of gravy, would hardly seem surprising. For Mia, the temporary possession transports her from her grief and provides an exhilaration that soon becomes addictive. Meanwhile, Riley also wants a go, and while his sister Jade refuses, Mia is quick to facilitate once she leaves the room. What follows is a horrifying set of consequences that are both memorable and shocking, not just in their thrills, or violence for that matter, but in the emotional stakes when we learn that Mia’s deceased mother has reached out to her from the beyond… or has she?
There is no lack of demonic entities and unexpectedly gruesome outbursts in Talk to Me, which I’ll admit often took me by surprise. There is an oppressive tone to this film that makes each jolt worse than the last because it successfully induces a sense of dread. There is a gritty aspect to the film that brings a sense of tragic foreboding almost reminiscent of Lake Mungo, and that social isolation I mentioned earlier breeds a wary sense of nihilism that seems ever so prevalent among today’s youth. The world we of an older age have created for them, despite the promise of social interactivity that our technological achievements promised, is used simply to record flashes of ecstasy and humiliation — anything to escape the tedium of mundane existence. It’s these impressions that the film imparts upon the audience that might linger longer than even its most effective occult scares.
The Philippous (and co-writer Bill Hinzman) care more about telling a story about the indescribable state of being that affects so many young people today — about those who might seek an escape from themselves and the unchangeable world besieging them, no matter the cost or danger.
The filmmakers themselves are accomplished gory horror YouTubers, hosting a channel called RackaRacka, which has produced horrifying and darkly amusing short films for some time. Highlights include their peculiarly nightmarish rendition of Ronald McDonald, which is certainly worth watching. Those shorts are full of chaotic visuals, action choreography, gore, and in-your-face chills, which makes their transition from the algorithm-based success of YouTube to long-form narrative storytelling all the more impressive, especially in the form of a nuanced, psychological character-based drama.
The Philippou twins have set themselves a high standard with Talk to Me, which also features excellent and immersive cinematography from Aaron McLisky, whose inexperience with feature-length films makes for a triumphant effort here, along with unremittingly and ruthlessly effective sound design.
A unique horror film that can draw subjective comparisons from several genres from the Far East and West, Talk to Me retains a unique identity that sets the stage for an impressive new horror talent, capable of gory brawn and intelligent scares.
Talk to Me signals the Philippous’ transition from internet sensations to accomplished filmmakers. This film melds raw, gory thrills with an astute commentary on contemporary youth and their unseen struggles. Their first feature-length foray suggests we should brace for more from these twins as they become directors who not only provoke with terror but also resonate with insightful reflections on the human condition. With Talk to Me, they’ve set a high bar for themselves, crafting a horror narrative that wields as much intelligent scare as it does visceral punch.