A still from Talk to Me by Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by the press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Talk to Me Review – A New Benchmark for Horror Films

A pulsing party spills into the street as a man pushes through the crowd, calling out for his brother. Making his way into the house, he follows the angry directions of partygoers who voice an unsympathetic concern about how the brother had been acting. Arriving at a locked bedroom door, the man bashes on it, yelling at his brother to open it up. Nothing. He slams his body against it, flying into the room and seeing the scarred back of a hunched man. Scooping the broken body of his brother up, the man ushers him out of the house, trying to shield him from the chorus of bystanders filming the brothers staggering on their phones. The man pushes them back, demanding some kind of empathy or civility, that they leave his brother alone. As he becomes overwhelmed by everything, the brother grabs a kitchen knife and stabs the man in the chest before swiftly plunging it completely into his head.

So opens siblings Michael and Danny Philippou’s fucked up feature film debut Talk to Me. Best known for their popular YouTube channel RackaRacka, Danny and Michael confidently transition to filmmaking with this zeitgeist grabbing, youth culture embracing horror film.

After the mood setting opening that instantly let’s you know that this film is not mucking around, we’re chucked into the story good and proper, meeting Zoe Terakas’ Hayley and Chris Alosio’s Joss, purveyors of unique thrills and experiences. Together, they offer partygoers something a little different than the usual party drugs in the form of a gnarled porcelain white hand, covered in writing. For those seeking a buzz, all they have to do is sit down, put their hand in the grasp of the twisted fingers of the hand, and say ‘talk to me’. With a captive audience of leering peers, all livestreaming what follows to their vast audiences, a new kind of thrill is unearthed. Not only does the hand-holder experience something truly otherworldly, but everyone watching gets a frenetic display of a human being possessed, contorting and twisting as they’re strapped in place into a chair.

Hayley and Joss maintain a level of seriousness about what they’re dealing with, even as they both hang in anticipation like giddy kids on Christmas morning. They both set the rules of what’s about to occur clearly: a candle must be lit. You must be strapped in, holding the hand and saying ‘talk to me,’ and then when something appears, you say ‘I let you in’. A timer has to be set to 90 seconds, with someone on standby to blow out the candle to ‘shut the door’ to whatever has been let in, and to pull the hand out of the grip of the willing individual.

Zoe Terakas and Chris Alosio are brilliantly buoyant, perfectly giving the feeling of light-headed drug dealers who get high off their own supply, but also want to share it around with everyone else. Which leads us to the main characters of Talk to Me: Sophie Wilde’s Mia, a young girl still processing the unsettling death of her mother, Alexandra Jensen’s Jade, best friend to Mia and sister to Joe Bird’s Riley. Together, under the support of Miranda Otto’s Sue, mother to Jade and Riley, they form a makeshift family.

Jensen’s Jade is a supportive, concerned sister, observant of the difficult journey through teen-life that Riley is going through. Wilde’s Mia acts as the counterpoint to Jade’s hovering support, giving Riley the ability to experience a bit of safe freedom, as shown early on where the two sing with carefree abandon to Sia’s Chandelier, before they’re forced to stop to deal with a dying kangaroo lying in the middle of the road. Both get out of the car, hearing the guttural and pained howl of the kangaroo, as if it’s calling into the night for death to take it, and quickly. That tortured howl sets the tone for the rest of Talk to Me: this is a film that’s going to be painful, it’s going to force you to sit with some genuinely violent and disturbing images, and maybe the most unsettling thing of it all is the manner the Philippou brothers want you to enjoy your time doing so.

When Mia, Jade, and Riley find themselves at a party where Hayley and Joss are, acting like carnival ringmasters, Mia jumps at the chance to play with the hand. This is our first true glance at what happens during the act, and when Mia says ‘talk to me’ we see a grotesque, partially decomposed, waterlogged woman, her bulging eyes leering at Mia with a fevered eagerness. The make-up and practical effects within Talk to Me immerse you even further in the world, causing your stomach to lurch as each progressive spectre appears in a state of decomposition, festering with pus, gaping wounds, and caked in dried blood. Death can be a gnarly and horrifying thing to experience, and the spirits that we see her have endured immense pain – both in the manner they left this world, and in the place they find themselves in on the other side.

The Philippou’s present death and dying as a truly horrifying action, utilising the anguish and despair that comes from it as a perfect counterpoint to the frivolity and loose way that the teens play with the supernatural world. While you might be able to pull some kind of metaphor for drugs out of the film, the reality is that Talk to Me is a nasty, brutally violent and genuinely possessed film. This film had me screaming ‘no’ at the screen repeatedly as I gripped the handrest like my life depended on it. Days after viewing it, I’m still unable to shake the nightmares it’s given me.

This is in part thanks to the committed performances from the cast. Firstly, Miranda Otto is given a chance to play a no bullshit mum who knows her kids are going to drink and party and sets boundaries on how to do that safely. It’s clear that Otto is relishing the chance to play an against type character here.

Newcomers Joe Bird and Alexandra Jensen bounce off each other brilliantly as siblings, showcasing the balance of both loving and despising your sibling wonderfully. They do genuinely care for each other, but they’re both going through growing pains and hormonal changes with they don’t entirely know how to reckon with. Danny Philippou and co-writer Bill Hinzman’s script is already a stellar beast, but by seeding it with these genuinely human elements, it allows the furious horror to grip and squeeze tight your gut even more.

Sophie Wilde’s Mia is given some of the heaviest scenes to work with, yet still manages to flow effortlessly between emotions, creating a character who clearly knows that the darkness of grief cannot smother the joy of the day, yet it’s a struggle that she lives with in every second of every day. When Mia engages with the hand for the first time, her eyes erupt with the possibility that lingers within this vessel that opens a door to the dead. As the effects of her use of the hand linger, Wilde pulls Mia into a level of paranoia and fear that amplifies just how disturbing this whole endeavour is.

What begins as light fun with the dead, a modern spin on the Ouija board if you will, with characters becoming possessed by horny spirits or lead to spout babbling nonsense, quickly turns into catastrophic violence and gore. The ratcheting tension created by Geoff Lamb’s visceral editing will leave you on the brink of a panic attack. When one character starts slamming their head into a dresser, briefly hovering in the air for a moment before bringing their broken brow into the harsh edge once again, your stomach lurches in the moment, like you’re about to go over the peak of a mammoth rollecoaster, only to realise that instead of track there is a great chasm beneath you.

This is a film with no safety nets. It’s not mucking about at all. Talk to Me intends to make you have one of the most unsettling nights watching a horror film, and the best part is that the Philippou’s know that you’re going to enjoy doing it. Talk to Me is a new benchmark for horror films. It instantly stands as one of the grittiest, grimiest, gruelling and grotty, goretastic Aussie horror films ever. Sign me up for whatever the hell these Philippou brothers are going to create, because if it’s anything like this, then it’s going to be a bloody great time.

Directors: Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou

Cast: Sophie Wilde, Joe Bird, Alexandra Jensen

Writers: Danny Philippou, Danny Hinzman

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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