The crepuscular palette of It Comes at Night meets the teen-friendly curses of Ringu and the cackling demonic infestations of The Evil Dead in this sprightly debut feature from Australian twins Danny and Michael Philippou. A sharp blend of psychological reality (bereavement, guilt), potent topicality (addiction, dependency) and phantasmagorial invention (a gateway to the beyond) create an intelligently entertaining chiller that packs a crowd-pleasing wallop without succumbing to quiet, quiet, LOUD jump-scare cliches.
An unexpectedly pointed party opening (as startling as Scream) and a distressing roadkill encounter with a kangaroo (“It’s crying, you can’t leave it like this”) neatly set the scene for what is to come. Two years after the untimely death of her mother, 17-year-old Mia (Sophie Wilde) has retreated from her father, preferring to hang out at the home of best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), who lives with her mum, Sue (Miranda Otto), and younger brother Riley (Joe Bird). When a Snapchat video of schoolfriends using a creepy ceramic hand to conjure evil spirits goes viral, Mia is eager to get in on the game: to grasp the haunted limb, to say the magic words “Talk to me” and “I let you in” and to become possessed by a dead soul – albeit for only a minute.
It’s a thrill Mia finds utterly intoxicating, taking her out of the here and now, temporarily obliterating her underlying sadness. Young Riley wants to have a go too, but Jade refuses – only for Mia to ignore her objections, with disastrous consequences. Distracted by what she believes is the voice of her dead mother, Mia lets Riley stay under the spell too long, unleashing a self-destructive force that will drag them all to hell.
There are plenty of familiar demon-eyed theatrics and visceral physical shocks in Talk to Me, some of which will make you shudder and shriek. But beneath the shiversome (and at times derivative) surface there are darker forces at work, echoing real-life videos of kids filming each other having bad drug trips, then posting them online. Like Bill Gunn’s 1973 “black vampire” cult classic Ganja & Hess, the supernatural elements of Talk to Me may be its main selling point, but it’s the down-to-earth aspects that bite. For all the film’s occult trappings, the Philippous (along with co-writer Bill Hinzman) are more interested in telling a story about young people riddled with anxiety, seeking escape in dangerously illicit rituals that get them out of their heads – literally. No wonder the film’s title sounds less like an incantation than a cry for help.
Having made a splash via their DIY RackaRacka action/comedy/horror YouTube channel, the Philippous (both of whom crewed on Jennifer Kent’s groundbreaking Oz chiller The Babadook) make the transition to the feature film format with ease, retaining the anarchic energy of their early online work while embracing the more complex arcs of character-led drama. Plaudits to cinematographer Aaron McLisky, who shot the acclaimed short films Nursery Rhymes (2018) and Kilter (2020), and who imbues Talk to Me (which also draws inspiration from a Daley Pearson short script about demonic possession as a high) with an eerie blend of gliding calm and shrieking horror.
An image of bloodied hand-washing evokes the guilt-ridden Shakespearean spectre of Lady Macbeth, while the sight of fresh blood being licked from a tiled floor recalls a shocking moment from Guillermo del Toro’s feature debut, Cronos. But for all the genre nods, this remains very much its own movie – a film that isn’t afraid to talk to its core audience, even while giving them the heebie-jeebies.