“Talk to Me has a superb first hour, a tingling escalation that pays off with a set-piece for the ages.”
A great party-trick premise
A terrific young cast
One truly terrifying sequence
Some clunky plotting
Peaks in the middle
“It’s really about grief”
The monkey’s paw is so last century. Talk to Mea freaky blast of urban legend for the age of social media and smartphones, introduces a new cursed object of phalangeal horror. It’s a hand, severed and embalmed and encased in ceramic, that acts as a direct conduit to the world of the dead. Grasping and addressing its digits (the words of the film’s title are the necessary incantation) summons a specter from the other side. Four more words, “I let you in,” grant consent for possession. For however long the handshake holds, your body remains under the control of the visiting spirit, benevolent or less so.
The premise is pure campfire hokum, but there’s a fiendishly clever twist to it: Rather than approach the power of that creepy hand with nothing but fear or hushed curiosity, the Australian suburban teenagers of this A24 fright-fest turn it into a party trick. Gathering in basements on Friday nights, the kids take turns communing and trifling with the dead; they convulse into a marionette state, their voices commandeered for a beyond-the-grave ventriloquist act, as their classmates bellow with laughter and film the whole thing. They don’t need an exorcist. They need a chaperone or a stricter curfew.
For Mia (Sophie Wilde), the draw of the game is deeper than a wild out-of-body experience. She’s still grieving the death of her mother, who recently overdosed on sleeping pills — maybe accidentally, maybe not. Could the hand be a way to reach her? Feeling disconnected from her father (Marcus Johnson), Mia spends most of her time hanging with longtime friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade’s preteen brother, Riley (Joe Bird), who seems equally spooked and intrigued by the blithe conjurings the older kids are turning into viral content.
The film’s directors, Aussie twins Danny and Michael Philippou, carefully establish this surrogate-family dynamic, finding affection (there’s a great smash cut to a Sia singalong that immediately conveys Mia and Riley’s close bond) but also buried tensions, like the whisper of jealousy that has come between the girls since Jade started dating Daniel (Otis Dhanji), the painfully chaste Christian boy Mia called sweetheart in middle school. The Philippou brothers made a name for themselves with the horror-comedy of their YouTube channel, RackaRacka. Their internet-celeb goofiness seeps productively into the high-school hangout scenes of their feature debut. If nothing else, the two have a finger on the pulse of a generation living life through the rectangular frame of a screen.
But Talk to Me is no didactic lecture about kids these days. The film taps into something more timeless: the games of chicken, mild and dangerous, the young have always played with mortality. The hand is like a more extreme version of the blackout challenge (a.k.a. the fainting game), that adolescent double-dare pastime of asphyxiation for the sake of euphoria. It also becomes a funhouse mirror of ordinary teenage experimentation with drugs: What are the kids doing in that basement but finding an outlandish way to chase sensation and become someone else for a little while? “When you’re young, you’re immortal, or so you think,” a poet of rock ‘n’ roll once said.
It probably goes without saying that Talk to Me will eventually make the threat of death much more immediate for these kids, tilting out of carefree transgression and into dire consequence; the expertly calibrated jolt of the cold open, a previous party gone wrong, tells us that from the start. But knowing the shoe is going to drop doesn’t make its landing any less shocking. The centerpiece sequence of the movie is harrowingly intense — an outburst of violence that recalls, in its gruesome mutilation and madness, the ending of Stephen King’s unforgettable short story “The Jaunt.” The scene sends an electric current of danger through the movie, destroying any sense of security. How much horror, you wonder, is still on the way?
Maybe not quite enough, as it turns out. Talk to Me has a superb first hour, a tingling escalation that pays off with a set piece for the ages. But from there it settles into something a little more conventional and a lot less convincing. Part of the problem is that the script by Danny and Bill Hinzman starts fudging the ooky-spooky logistics, allowing the hostile spirits to appear at will, impersonate loved ones, and create deceptive hallucinations — a skillset that proves more narratively convenient than particularly scary. There’s also the way Talk to Me gets hopelessly hung up on Mia’s unprocessed feelings about her mother. That element never stops looking insert-trauma-here perfunctory, maybe because it’s fast calcified into cliché for horror movies under the A24 umbrella.
The film is at its best earlier, in that basement, teetering along with its characters on the knife’s edge between scared and amused. Each time they invite the ghosts in, the movie shudders with potential. Who will step through the door and into their skin this time? The young actors, especially the beamingly emotive Wilde, embrace the role-playing opportunity. If Talk to Me doesn’t peak with its big moment of bloody terror, it does so with a giddy party montage that makes ghostly possession look like a game of musical chairs. Here, the movie really communicates what it’s about: dancing with the reaper before, to paraphrase another ’70s rock sage, you’ve learned to fear him.
Talk to Me opens in select theaters on Friday, July 28. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.