Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Talk to Me (2022) dir. Danny & Michael Philippou

Elevated horror, or roller coaster death drop?


Courtesy of A24

Shock sells. This was the thinking for decades, anyway, when it came to selling horror movies. Consider John D. Hancock’s 1971 cult classic Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a profoundly sad work of psychological horror whose vampires and other ghouls may very well be a product of its heroine’s mental illness, but which was sold as a lurid, blood-soaked potboiler. That was then, though. Now is the age of “elevated horror,” in which deep-rooted psychological metaphor is the rule of the genre, in which even franchise slashers as Halloween are retrofitted into downbeat tales of grief and trauma. Gore, it seems, is passe; if you want to sell a horror film in the 21st century, you better promise some tears.

This is part of why I was so surprised by Talk to Me, the new spookfest from Australian Youtubers-turned-first-time filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou. It is distributed by A24, a studio which has become nearly synonymous with high-minded horror, and its trailer advertises it as a foreboding, moody affair. And, while Talk to Me is very much a film of its time, with all the emotion and gravity that has become de rigueur, it is also– and I mean this as high praise– completely bugnuts insane.

Mia (Sophie Wilde) is haunted by the death of her mother, which weighs heavily on her relationship with her father even a year on. Her friends are haunted, too, but in a decidedly different way. Through some sort of mysterious friend-of-a-friend network, they have come into possession of a cursed plaster hand. It supposedly contains the mummified extremity of a late psychic, but one senses the kids neither know nor particularly care about its origins; all they know is that anyone who clasps the hand in their own will briefly become a conduit for the spirit realm (who they channel appears to be random, like a sort of supernatural Chatroulette). Mia is naturally skeptical at first, but once she experiences the rush of mediumship she quickly becomes hooked– especially once she realizes this may be her ticket to achieve closure with her mom. But not every spirit who answers the call is entirely friendly, and it soon becomes apparent that the kids may not always be the ones in control.

Credit: Matthew Thorne

Most horror movies rely on the building and release of tension, but I can’t think of many which swing between such extremes as Talk to Me. Mia’s relationships with her father and best friend are so tender and thoughtfully realized that they might lull you, if not into a false sense of security, then at least into the sense that you’re watching a certain type of relatively restrained horror. Then Mia grabs onto that hand, and with a burst of adrenaline the film reveals its true shape. There is a high-octane, almost playful exuberance to the proceedings, as much indebted to Sam Raimi as to Ari Aster, which is refreshing as we near a decade of the current cycle of prestige horror. We can understand why these kids can’t stop communing with the dead, because we share their giddy high. As the story progresses, the film yo-yos between these two modes, creating an effect almost like the highs and lows of a rollercoaster (not for nothing is the film the de facto kickoff to the Brattle’s “Thrill Ride Horror” series).

The horror film has been used as a vessel for sly social commentary going back at least as far as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and this is certainly no exception. The teens of Talk to Me are as emblematic of their generation as the cast of Scream was of Generation X. When presented with an object of mind-boggling supernatural significance and near-certain evil, these kids do what comes naturally to them: they create Content. In an amusing spin on formula, the hand has already become a viral phenomenon by the time Mia gets ahold of it, with kids livestreaming their own possessions for likes and subscriptions. Like the camera of The Blair Witch Project, the screen serves to distance the protagonists from the horrors they face, but they’re pretty much fine with that; they’re young enough that that’s how they’ve experienced most of their lives anyway. The #TalkToMe challenge is just the logical extension of Slenderman or MoMo or any other viral creepypasta thrill. The fact that this one happens to be real is just gravy.

Courtesy of A24

It should be noted that neither the quiet passages nor the set pieces would likely work half as well as they do without the performance of Sophie Wilde. In the first act, she sells Mia’s vulnerability and heartbreak exceptionally well; she’s as withdrawn and taciturn as any traumatized teen, but her expressive eyes and understated performance let us know exactly where she is at any given moment on her emotional landscape. But like the movie itself, her power reveals itself along with the demons. Wilde truly acts like a woman possessed, contorting herself and cackling in a way that makes it clear that this is not the person we’ve come to know– then proceeds to present maybe a dozen recognizably different spirits, all in 30-second installments, over the course of the film. It’s a remarkable performance; I would not be at all surprised if Sophie Wilde is a household name inside of five years.

Like many debut features, there are times when Talk to Me perhaps overreaches, and the third act is at times frustratingly muddy when it should be building to its loony crescendo. But I’ll take an overreaching film over an underachiever any day, and even when something doesn’t quite work, you know the Philippous will present you with something entirely new within a few minutes. And anyway, Talk to Me understands better than most horror films that mythology and lore take a back seat to a good scare. Talk to Me is scary in the sublime way of a good funhouse, jolting you from one beat to the next with lean efficiency and a perversely good-natured sense of fun, leading up to a punchline as darkly funny as any classic EC comic. It’s the rare “elevated horror” film that functions just as well as a sleepover party dare– which is, perhaps, the ultimate compliment.

Talk to Me
dir. Danny & Michael Philippou
94 min.

Opens Friday, 728 @ Somerville Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and various multiplexes
Also check out the Brattle’s summer-long series Thrill Ride Horror, inspired by Talk to Me!

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License(unless otherwise indicated) © 2019