'Talk to Me' Finds Fresh Scares in Classic Horror

Directed by Michael and Danny Philippou

Starring Sophie Wilde, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Miranda Otto, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio

Photo courtesy of VVS Films

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished Jul 26, 2023

The RackaRacka twins, Michael and Danny Philippou, have built their brand on hilariously gory YouTube videos that can be easy to grow out of — the most infamous of which features a murderous, foul-mouthed Ronald McDonald. Their YouTube style is a far cry from subtle, and their directorial debut, Talk to Me, takes on the well-worn possession horror trope. Yet, what was primed to be a gratingly obnoxious experience manifests as anything but. Their eclectic love of extreme gore remains, but it's now filtered through a level of sophistication typically reserved for the most seasoned of filmmakers.

Given their typically unadulterated schlock, the Philippous shockingly craft a film that's anti-jump scare. Instead, the filmmakers rely on character, mood and eerie foreshadowing to buttress their devilishly clever concept: a viral party game involving an embalmed hand that conjures spirits who are given permission to possess the holder of the hand. The euphoric sensation captivates Mia (Sophie Wilde) and her friends, until it all inevitably goes horribly wrong.

Talk to Me is a sonic-visual feast with a muted colour palette, suffocating close-ups, still-yet-cacophonous soundscapes, and a purposeful use of shifting focus that crescendos towards a visceral display of violence. This great attention to detail is made markedly clear in the striking, single-take opening, all before Mia begins communicating with disfigured apparitions.

It's an opening that taps into our fascination with the supernatural, plunging us into a world that is as off-putting as it is entrancing. But it's the subtle nods to grief and ingrained trauma that elevate these characters' self-destructive behaviour into something truly startling and memorable. While the film's arcs and twisted sequences head towards predictable territory, its insistence on personal stakes and emotional heft allow each partygoer a chance to land a piercing blow. Talk to Me constantly flicks between overt horror and subtle anxiety, with each stream just as engrossing as the next.

The result is an experience that never pulls its punches, despite how quiet it gets. The film never becomes self-serious, lacing even the tensest of moments with an extremely well-placed wisecrack. A quality that is key to its absorbing and fun formula.

The glue that holds it all together is Wilde's star-making turn as the grief-addled Mia. She yearns for human connection and companionship in the wake of her mother's death, and Wilde's performance powerfully personifies that plight, striking a perfect balance between numb and bubbly. Her measured inflections and reticent mannerisms give life to a teenager absorbed by loss and subsumed by the escapist, addictive nature of the game.

The supporting cast members also hold their weight. Alexandra Jensen and Joe Bird relationship as siblings Jade and Riley feels genuine. The two bounce off each other compellingly, especially when their conflict gives way to agonizingly heartfelt concern. Miranda Otto as Sue, Riley and Jade's mother, is the sole character kept away from the spectral happenings. Otto's maternal presence tows the line between comedic relief and a dramatic anchor, with her concerned persona forcefully turning callous as the film veers into darker territory. Zoe Terakes and Chris Alosio make for amiable renegades, while Otis Djhanji turns in convincing, relatable work as Jade's boyfriend Daniel.

The Philippous' subversive takes are reinforced by the ghost designs that relish each grizzly gash and festering wound, with their void-like pupils containing a world of terror. They seep out of the screen in a tangible and cerebral manner, inducing a form of paralysis that renders characters and audiences incapable of looking away from their unsightly figures. Couple this with impeccable lighting and editing that shifts between real and illusory worlds at a second's notice, Talk to Me quickly realizes itself as one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory. Moreover, it's an experience that deliberately invests in the grey areas of its lore more than the specifics, allowing our imagination to do the heavy lifting and the film's intrigue to take hold.

It's difficult to find films that are genuinely terrifying. The Philippous' stellar debut not only refines genre conventions but subverts them en route to its wonderfully winking, full-circle finale. It's an experience that approaches horror holistically, crafting characters, themes and an atmosphere that unnerves rather than relying on fleeting scares. It's not only a promising first feature, but also a bold statement from two novel cinematic voices. Talk to Me serves as a reminder that YouTubers and other digital creators will play a key role in shaping the current trajectory of the industry, and if their work is anything like this, the future of cinema is in great hands.

Montreal's Fantasia International Film Festival 2023 runs from July 20 to August 9. Tickets and information can be found at the festival's website.
(VVS Films)

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