Synopsis: Two years after the death of her mother, Mia (Sophie Wilde) is still in a state of grief. Distant from her father (Otis Dhanji) and developing a reputation among her peers as ‘the depressed girl’, the only outlet Mia has is her de facto surrogate family consisting of best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), and their mother Sue (Miranda Otto). However, when Mia chances upon a new viral trend involving holding a disembodied embalmed hand to speak to the spirits of the dead, she becomes obsessed with trying to contact her mother, with severe consequences for both herself and Riley.
1. At this point, what is and isn’t ‘elevated horror’ has become a pretty tired discourse. To summarise – starting with the release of The Babadook in 2014 1, a noticeable type of horror movie emerged that has been called ‘elevated horror’. In a nutshell, ‘elevated horror’ seeks to differentiate itself from mainstream horror movies by having a heavier focus on dread, atmosphere and suspense. These movies also tend to be more explicit and deliberate in having their scares ‘mean’ something, often as an external manifestation of some psychological or cultural trauma. The studio/distribution company most associated with the sub-genre is the cinephile/film-bro’s (delete based on your opinion) wet dream, the sainted A24, distributors of Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019),The VVitch (2015), The Lighthouse (2019, X (2022) and Pearl (2022) 2 It is as part of this lineage that Talk To Me is delivered into, this notion of the ‘A24-elevated-horror-film’ that, quite frankly, I’m starting to feel is nothing more than genre snobbery. So let’s set aside the A24 branding and ignore the question of whether Talk To Me is ‘elevated horror’. Instead, let’s ask an easier and far more pertinent question. Is Talk To Me a good horror movie?
2. Yes. The answer is yes. The debut feature film by twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou is a brutally efficient and effective horror movie that establishes them as promising talents to watch. While it is somewhat derivative of what came before, there is no denying the skill and talent behind and in front of the camera. The Philippous have a particular knack for mixing together horror and comedy in the vein of early Sam Raimi, with many scenes beginning with nervous laughter and ending with screams. Like Raimi, there is a certain mean-spiritedness (I mean that in a good way) to the Philippous, who spare nobody, not even a child, which lends a real sense of unpredictability to the movie. For first-time filmmakers, they also exhibit a remarkable sense of patience, allowing scenes to stretch out tension for as long as possible before delivering sudden sharp shocks. This extends not just on a scene-by-scene basis but also to the entirety of the film, which barely has any horror elements in its first third, focusing instead on setting tone, plot, and character in order to ramp up the scares in the rest of the movie.
3. And trust me, you will know it when it hits. The first two possession scenes (along with an honest-to-god possession montage in between) are some of the best horror filmmaking I’ve seen in a good while, thanks to that aforementioned uneasy mix of comedy and horror. It’s a really clever trick, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before … well, I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that the ‘big scene’ in this one will jolt a fair number of people out of their seats. The Philippous got their start as Youtubers, and this background can be seen in the high-energy construction of their scenes and their no-fuss efficiency, as evidenced by the first big scare scene. It is brutal, quick, and extremely effective. The Philippous also have an instinctive (but more likely honed through their years in Youtube and working backstage in other productions) knack for understanding exactly the perfect length of a scene to build up suspense before the sudden jolt of release. Also, a word of praise needs to be given to the sound design of the film, which somehow manages to make a pillow hitting someone sound like a bag of bricks thumped against the wall. So you can imagine that when something a lot fleshier hits something a lot harder, it sounds painful.
4. Furthermore, the horror of Talk To Me is intensified by the sheer level of authenticity suffused into every frame of the movie. You know how the mainstream Hollywood ‘middle-class’ house looks, right? Unbelievably neat, barely any clutter, every element perfectly designed and aesthetically complementing each other? Yeah, that’s not this movie. The houses actually look real. Cluttered, lived-in, believably stained carpets, the works. In fact, the only ‘movie house’ in Talk To Me belongs to Mia, which can easily be interpreted as a symbol of how barren her life is after her mother’s death. Beyond setting, dear god do these teenagers feel precisely like teenagers. I work with teenagers in my day job, and it’s often hilarious how wrong forty-something-year-old writers can be when they try to represent ‘the youth of today’ onscreen. Not the Phillipous though, who once again, by dint of their particular path to filmmaking, know exactly how teenagers act, sound, and behave. The real secret sauce here is how not-judgmental the Philippous are towards their teenage characters – there’s a sense of warmth and empathy towards everyone that prevents them from falling into stereotypes. So many mainstream movies and TV shows present teenage interactions as falling into these strict cliques or categorisation, 3 but I can tell you with confidence that these social dynamics are far more fluid, which is what we see here with characters like Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio) hanging out with Mia even though they’re not in the same social circle, because Jade happens to be a mutual friend. Similarly, while the teenaged characters are quick to use their phones to record (and sometimes tease) the others who freak out during their possessions, the film never tries to finger-wag or scold them for it. This is just what they do, Talk To Me says. Accept it.
5. It helps that the film is cast astonishingly well, considering how many of the actors are unknowns. As a matter of fact, one might say that part of the reason why the teenage characters feel so authentic is precisely because the actors are less well-known, allowing them to meld seamlessly into their roles without any preconceptions from a general audience. Chief among this impressive group is Sophia Wilde, who delivers a revelatory performance as Mia. Wilde is excellent in every aspect of what is a difficult role to play – she has to first sell Mia as withdrawn and depress before becoming more unhinged and manic as the spirits take greater control. I have no better praise to give Wilde than to compare her performance with Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010), particularly in the latter half as the lines between reality and fantasy start to blur. The rest of the teenagers are uniformly excellent too, particularly the aforementioned Terakes and Alosio for portraying very believable Gen Z ‘cool kids’ without falling into obvious stereotypes. As for the adults, Miranda Otto (best known as Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings movies) anchors the movie with a fine performance as Jade and Riley’s mother.
6. As promising as Talk To Me is, it is by no means a perfect movie, nor would I say it is on the level of the most hard-hitting horror debuts from A24. For one, this is the rare movie that is actually too short, as opposed to the bloat that plagues most modern blockbusters. The ending is a little abrupt, and it certainly could have used a little bit more development at the end to make clear what exactly took place. There were more than a few people at my screening who looked mildly confused, and while I appreciate the movie not feeling the need to spell everything out to its viewer, a little bit more clarity would have been appreciated (particularly as it does end with a neat little reversal). Beyond a plot level, the ending just doesn’t have the bite that something like Hereditary or The VVitch has, concluding a little anticlimactically instead of really ramping up the terror. While it is nice that Talk To Me aims to end with a character decision rather than just straight-up blood and gore, it does feel like a damp squib in a moment that ought to be the arrival at the fireworks factory.
7. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop Talk To Me from being one of the more entertaining and impactful horror movies of recent memory, as well as a very promising debut from a pair of young filmmakers. With its rich feeling of authenticity coming from its young cast and realistic setting, along with the Philippous’ clear skill in constructing tense and suspenseful scenes, Talk To Me is clearly a cut above most of the horror flicks released by major studios. If it never quite reaches the level of its sainted A24 brethren, it’s not for lack of trying – the possession motif does very much call to mind drug use and addiction, while the film quite elegantly draws in ideas of grief, loss, and the impact of social media. Only a somewhat disappointing ending stops the film from reaching the heights of something like Midsommar, but with the level of skill and talent that the Philippous have exhibited at the comparatively tender age of 30, I don’t doubt that creating a masterpiece is beyond their capabilities. A sequel has already been announced, as well as a ‘screenlife’ 4 prequel involving a minor character that was concurrently filmed along with Talk To Me. With any luck, all these endeavours will be just as good as this one, if not even better.