Talk to Me Review – A Bone-Crunching, Ferocious Horror Film with Gore Aplenty

The set-up is familiar; a group of teens start messing around with an occult object and bad things begin to happen. Despite this being the premise of dozens of possession horror films, Danny and Michael Philippou’s debut Australian horror feature Talk to Me is doing something unique with the concept, and something that is distinctly Australian and of the moment. The core of the film is about addiction and how for viral content friends film each other at their worst moments for online celebrity. Addiction isn’t usually associated with possession films – that tends to be more aligned with the vampiric, but the Philippou siblings have taken a hard look at Australia’s drinking and drug culture with teens and turned it into a supernatural horror.

The film begins with a stunning tracking shot moving through teen party in suburban Adelaide. We follow Cole (Ari McCarthy) who is looking for his brother, Duckett (Sunny Johnson) through the mayhem of underage bacchanalia. It’s a familiar scene for so many who have attended this kind of party – a party where the parents don’t care what’s going on. Cole has been called to collect Duckett who has locked himself in a room. When he gets the door open and tries to get his brother out of the party, Duckett stabs Cole and then plunges the knife into his own face – all the while partygoers are filming the event – digital bystanders to something unspeakable. The Philippou siblings pressed go and what follows is a viscerally disturbing offering that dares the audience to keep watching.

Seventeen-year-old Mia (Sophie Wilde) is mourning the anniversary of her mother Rhea’s (Alexandria Steffensen) death which may or may not have been suicide. Unable to deal with her father, Max’s (Marcus Johnson) concern and feeling bereft she insinuates herself into her best friend Jade’s (Alexandra Jensen) family where she feels more comfortable with Jade’s mother Sue (Miranda Otto) and her brother Riley (Joe Bird). Jade’s attention has been elsewhere of late with her new boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) who happens to be Mia’s ex-boyfriend. Jade’s disinterest in being a big sister to thirteen-year-old Riley and taking household on household responsibility for her single mother means that Mia is a substitute for Jade. More than that, she wants to be Jade – a teenager who only has to worry about texting her boyfriend and hanging out.

Mia ends up convincing Jade and Daniel to go to a party run by Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio) where they have been filming teens “huffing” on an embalmed hand which leads them to the spirit realm for the ultimate high. People at the parties film the possessions which have strict rules; the person must take the hand and say, “Talk to Me,” see the spirit who they believe will possess them and then say, “I let you in.” The spirit cannot be allowed to possess the body for more than ninety seconds and a candle must be blown out to close the door to the spirit world. Mia is game for the experience and finds herself returning often to the parties and convincing others to join in, including Daniel whose possession is particularly embarrassing. Eventually Riley is given a go, despite Jade’s disapproval, and his possession is bone crunchingly violent and goes on for too long.

The Philippou brothers favour practical effects and make up for their gore. They also favour a build-up of tension but never sway from electric pacing. Mia is vulnerable because of her grief and she believes one of the spirits was her mother (incidentally the one who possessed Riley for a moment). As she too allowed the spirits to stay too long, they are beginning to haunt her waking moments and possessing her at will. Spirits, like drug highs, have unforeseen consequences that leave the body and psyche susceptible.

Talk to Me grows bleaker by the moment. Mia’s dependence on the possessions leaves her ostracised from the family she was so desperate to be a part of, and the innocent Riley seriously injured. The increased paranoia she feels and her inability to tell reality from what the spirits (a brutal and hungry bunch who gorge on their hosts and victims) lead her to madness and violence. No one is prepared to take responsibility for what happened with Hayley and Joss essentially wiping their hands of “the hand” and Mia. The dealers are done.

Talk to Me is a sleek, frightening, and unique construction that digs into teen loneliness and dispossession through actual possession. It is literally bone crunching and ferocious with gore aplenty but is also empathetic despite the characters making the worst choices possible. There is no happy ending to the film, just a pervasive darkness. Duckett’s fate telegraphs what happens to those who depend too much on the passing high. For Mia, everything is lost, and she has taken innocent people with her. The Philippou brothers have said that the film is trying to capture a state where a party “gets sadder as things progress… and the drug isn’t fun anymore.” What they have created in conjunction with screenwriter Bill Hinzman (from a concept by Daley Pearson) in conjunction with cinematographer Aaron McLisky, and editor Geoff Lam is a penetrating and brutal film that is enormously creative and a perfect deconstruction of the darker side of what teens do to each other for social cachet. Talk to Me is one of the best Australian films of the year in any genre, and possibly one of top horror releases of 2023.

Directors: Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou

Cast: Sophie Wilde, Joe Bird, Alexandra Jensen

Writers: Danny Philippou, Danny Hinzman

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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