Talk to Me will haunt your dreams

Talk to Me

Danny & Michael Philippou’s demonic possession nightmare is the scariest movie of the year.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Things have been very bad for much of the world for a very long time, and they won’t improve any time soon. I don’t mean to start things off on a bummer note, but to point out that from such dire circumstances comes one benefit: the horror movie renaissance that started in the late 2010s only seems to be getting better. Just this year we’ve gotten the low-fi nightmares Skinamarink and The Outwaters, horror comedy with M3GAN and Cocaine Bear, another mostly solid entry in the Scream franchise, too many indie horror films to list here (Bad Girl Boogey and Brooklyn 45 are but a couple), and the roaring return of the Evil Dead series. Even if there weren’t another release for the rest of the year, it’d still be a great year for horror.

Instead, the best horror movie of the year is almost here: Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me, an unforgettable supernatural chiller about what happens when we look through a door we were never meant to open. Unexpectedly moving, gruesome, often funny, and haunting, it hits the ground running within the first five minutes and never stops, while also treating the characters as real people, and not a series of bowling pins waiting to be knocked over.

Teenage Mia (Sophie Wilde) is grieving the unexpected death of her mother some months earlier. Feeling increasingly distant from her father, she spends much of her time with her best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen), and Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), with whom Mia has developed a familial bond. Well aware that most of her classmates think she’s a bit of a weirdo, when one of them suggests an odd party game, she’s the first to volunteer to play it. The game in question is a twist on the Ouija board, in which touching a graffiti scarred ceramic hand supposedly allows you to connect with spirits, and even let them temporarily possess you, though if you let them hang around for more than 90 seconds they might not want to leave.

Though it sounds like a bunch of nonsense, the hand actually works. But rather than be frightened, Mia finds going through the veil and letting spirits take over her body an exhilarating experience. So does everyone else at the party (other than a reluctant Jade), who keep taking turns, passing around the hand like they’re doing whippets and filming each other and the occasionally embarrassing things the spirits make them do. Even adolescent Riley gets a turn, egged on by Mia despite Jade’s discomfort. 

Things take a dark turn, however, when the spirit Riley connects with appears to be that of Mia’s mother. Unwilling to break the connection as she desperately tries to get some sense of closure, Mia doesn’t notice that 90 seconds has elapsed. Once it does, the spirit forces Riley to commit a horrific act of self-injury in front of the entire party, nearly killing him.

Talk to Me
Talk to Me (A24)

Haunted and guilt-stricken by her role in what happened to Riley, even without the hand Mia is still aware of the presence of something otherworldly and menacing now hanging over her. Whatever it is, it’s not done trying to communicate with her yet, nor with tormenting Riley, who lays unconscious in a hospital bed.

I have to warn you: if you’re expecting an explanation for where the hand comes from, or any kind of backstory at all about it, you will be disappointed. No one at the party is particularly surprised that the hand works, and Jade’s reluctance to participate seems less out of fear than just a sort of teen uptightness, like the one kid in a group who turns down a sip of beer because they don’t want to get in trouble. In a different movie, an extra twenty minutes or so would have been spent on Mia looking on a fake internet browser for other stories about encounters with the hand, or listening to an extended monologue from someone about its origins. At a lean 90 minutes, it wastes no time on extraneous information: there’s a hand (maybe the preserved hand of a medium, but who knows, it doesn’t matter), you can contact ghosts with it, that’s all you need to know.

That’s not intended as a criticism. You may not find Talk to Me as scary or oddly poignant as I did, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll come away from it feeling like it told an incomplete story, let alone that it didn’t spend enough time developing its characters. Mia is a tragically conflicted protagonist, wracked with sorrow over her mother’s death, and hopeful at the opportunity to speak with her again. That hopefulness quickly turns into something sinister and reckless, making her a perfect conduit for the dark forces communicating with the hand unleashes. Her relationship with Jade and Riley feels real, particularly Riley, like a younger brother to Mia, and who looks up to her. The bond they share renders them vulnerable, to devastating results.

Lest you think it’s all relentlessly dark, Miranda Otto occasionally lightens the mood in a very funny supporting role as Jade and Riley’s no-nonsense mother. What could be clumsy tone shifts instead are just moments that allow the audience to breathe before the next time someone reaches for that hand, and the goosebumps reappear. With terrific practical effects and hair-raising sound design, there’s not a moment in Talk to Me that rings false. At the heart of it all, however, is its young cast, who look and sound like real teenagers, and do the dumb things you’d expect teenagers to do, without the jaded cynicism of 30 year-olds who’ve seen it all. They don’t deserve what happens to them. They’re just kids.

I’ve changed my mind. Talk to Me isn’t just the best horror movie of 2023, it’s one of the best movies of 2023. It’s a grueling but unforgettable watch.

Talk to Me premieres in theaters July 28th.

Talk to Me Trailer:

Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

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