Film reviews and more since 2009

Talk to Me (2023) review

Dir. Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Talk to Me revolves around a group of Australian teenagers experimenting with something that you don’t have to suspend disbelief to see could be a viral TikTok trend in itself. At the center of the film is a ceramic-encased severed hand with names and symbols etched all over it, suggesting its previous owners. It’s the integral device in a game teens play which involves lighting a candle and someone grabbing the hand and saying the lines “talk to me / I let you in.” Once consent is given, the person’s head is thrust backwards, their pupils turn black, and they begin choking and convulsing as if they’re going to die.

The hand itself gives its “players,” so to speak, access to see dead people, often their loved ones. When a new crop of teens — Mia (Sophie Wilde), Jade (Alexandra Jensen), and Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) — decide to mess with the hand at a party, they are filmed by their peers, namely Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio), the hand’s current owners. Someone is always in charge of keeping time of the possessions, for very bad things will happen if the stunt goes on for longer than 90 seconds.

At first, the hand is merely a fun party trick, which gets a rise out of the teens as they witness their friends shivering and reciting demonic exclamations. However, things get particularly scary when Riley’s experience has him overtaken by the spirit of Mia’s mother, who died two years prior. Mia’s desire to communicate with her mother via Riley results in the young boy going over the 90-second time-limit. Consequently, Riley sends himself into a coma after bashing repeatedly bashing his face into a table. The spirit evidently sees the time-limit expiring as consent to fully control the player’s body.

Oh, what a time to be a horror fan. Talk to Me is the latest inventive horror film in a landscape that’s been populated by works of all different sizes and scopes over the last several years. It belongs to two newcomers in Danny and Michael Philippou, working off a concept from Daley Pearson (who has worked on Marvel short films in the past). The twin brothers are behind the YouTube channel RackaRacka, where they specialize in horror-comedy shorts. The two bring a distinctive craft to Talk to Me, underscored by their bold use of sound.

Throughout, the sound design in Talk to Me is liable to make you wince. It’s amplified in such a way that draws special attention to eyes being gouged out, heads being bashed into tables (or ceramic tiles), shrieks, asphyxiations, screams, and more. It’s not done in the manner of cheap jump-scares, but as a way to further embellish the horror occurring before your eyes. It’s liable to make even seasoned horror buffs squirm.

From its proactively choreographed and well-plotted first half, it’s a slight disappointment that Talk to Me‘s second half descends into more of the usual grief/trauma business that’s become such a predictable undercurrent of modern horror. Furthermore, writers Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman don’t necessarily articulate the underlying effects of the hand when the spirits prove to have the capability to shapeshift and manipulate. As a result, it’s likely you’re going to need some clarity on the third act. Reading an article to draw a conclusion on a movie isn’t nearly as fun as watching fleshed-out elements cohere into something both sinister and digestible. Yet like grief, there is no definitive linear progression.

Even so, this largely young cast of unknowns distinguish themselves as individuals capable of making a name for themselves in the genre. No one shines more than Sophie Wilde as the emotionally fragile and reactive Mia. Wilde finds a balance in being both a spunky teenager and a scarred young adult, trying to shoulder emotions far beyond anything she’s ever experienced. When her closest friend in Riley — with whom she shares an early moment of spiritedness as the two belt Sia’s “Chandelier” during a late-night car-ride home — falls victim to possession, she becomes more reclusive and paranoid. How could she not? She’s already lost her mother and now she’s struggling to assure the same doesn’t happen to her father (Marcus Johnson).

No matter how crowded the field of modern horror may be, with the likes of Ari Aster, Ti West, Jordan Peele, Zach Cregger, Brandon Cronenberg, and more taking the genre to new, contemporary heights, the pool will never be too full. The Philippou’s establish themselves as craftsmen, even if the finer details of their narrative start to crack like the ceramic hand itself. If Talk to Me is the promising appetizer for them in the realm of feature films, there’s no reason to expect the real feast won’t be something to cherish.

NOTE: Talk to Me is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Starring: Sophia Wilde, Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio, Otis Dhanji, Miranda Otto, and Marcus Johnson. Directed by: Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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