Let The Wrong One In...
Is Talk To Me the first great horror film of 2023?
To say so would be damning with faint praise, as it’s not been a banner year for horror so far.
M3GAN was fun but overrated; Scream VI nosedived in the third act; Knock At The Cabin was further proof that Shyamalan needs to be behind the camera and as far away from the script as possible; Evil Dead Rise, while appropriately gruesome, was more of the same; and the less said about Winnie-The-Pooh: Blood and Honey, the better.Only Infinity Pool managed to impress and even then, it has faded from memory since its opening in Sundance and Berlin earlier this year.
Still, backhanded compliments be damned, as this Australian debut from brothers Danny and Michael Philippou merits the title. The directing duo made a name for themselves with their film spoof YouTube videos under the RackaRacka handle, and their indie chiller does not disappoint.
Talk to Me follows a gang of teenagers who are bored out of their trees. What do you expect? They live in the suburbs of South Australia and turn to whatever they can for entertainment: parties, posting videos on social media, and embracing the latest fads. It just so happens that the new craze involves a cursed mummified hand that allows people to communicate with the spirit world.
What could possibly go wrong?
After a very memorable opening (which shall not be spoiled here), we meet Mia (the fantastic Sophie Wilde), a lonely young woman who is still wrestling with the death of her mother. Her father Max (Marcus Johnson) is despondent in her eyes, and she now essentially lives with her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), her little brother Riley (Joe Bird), and their mother Sue (Miranda Otto). When Mia and Jade find themselves at a party one night, they discover how some of their less-than-cautious peers have taken to filming the latest craze for social media clout, essentially transforming possession into a party game.
The way it works is simple: a volunteer holds the ominous embalmed hand, utters the words “Talk to me” and a dead person materializes in front of their eyes. If they then say “Let me in”, the spirit will enter the participant for 90 seconds, triggering an addictive high that dwarfs any drug fix available. The rush provoked by the experience means that participants quickly crave a repeat handshake. However, let the spirit stay inside you for too long, and no good will come of it.
So, when Mia, desperately seeking a sense of belonging, partakes and appears to make contact with her late mother, she breaches the time limit and gets more than she bargained for.
We’ve seen it before: silly games lead to silly results.
Or, to put it more bluntly: f*ck with the afterlife, and it tends to f*ck right back.
However, the Philippous inject a fresh, punk energy to what sounds like well-trodden ground. Clearly inspired by Flatliners and, if you got further back, W. W. Jacob’s classic horror short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ - in which the wishes granted to the owner of the simian fist come with a heavy price – the duo draw as much mileage out of the premise without betraying the original concept or descending into cheap jump scare territory. Not that the shocks and scares aren’t there; several scenes of admirably realistic violence - courtesy of some impressive practical effects - are filmed and edited for maximum distress. One eye-popping image will haunt your nightmares for the foreseeable.
Commendably, there’s a feeling of plausibility to the proceedings that is disquieting, as the directors don’t lean too heavily on the online attention the hand shenanigans attracts or the possession-as-an-addiction-metaphor strand. They keep things uncluttered, focus on the theme of grief, and portray teenage behaviour realistically, with a tenderness that doesn’t reduce their experience to “Those bloody teens and them internets.” The protagonists are not the Instagram-filtered twentysomethings that populate a lot of horror or YA films; nor are they satirically imbued with the requisite quirky foibles to make them fit certain tired stereotypes peddled by writers and directors who approximate the modern teen experience. They’re just average kids who want to fill their days and fit in, and as such, their plight stemming from a desire to disassociate with daily life and crippling trauma through social media and possession becomes all the more understandable. And unsettling.
So yes, Talk To Me is hands down (so to speak) the strongest and most uncompromising horror offering of 2023 so far. You’ll want to hold someone’s hand throughout.
But don't. This may be the one chiller that puts the kibosh on that previously dependable source of reassurance.
Talk To Me is out in cinemas now.