SXSW 2023: ‘Talk to Me’ Review
The following is part of our coverage of SXSW 2023. For more, click here.
The explosion of horror as a genre in the 2020s is something to behold. After years of people treating the genre as “lesser”, the floodgates have opened and it seems each year we get a new genre-defining staple. That being said, it’s doubtful that you are ready for Talk to Me. The feature debut of writer-directors Danny and Michael Phillipou – best known for their YouTube channel RackaRacka which hosted such viral content as gory Ronald McDonald parodies and Halo vs. Call of Duty before demonetization caused them to shut down – is a statement. A statement that the Phillipous want to be taken seriously as artists in the horror space. Their statement comes through loud and clear.
I saw Talk to Me back at Sundance in January. Blown away doesn’t even begin to cover it. However, I worried that my euphoric experience was possibly due to festival excitement. So, when I saw the film was going to play at this year’s SXSW, it was a must. Having seen the film for a second time, there is no hyperbole: Talk to Me is a modern classic waiting to happen. Audiences should go in completely blind, so if you’re interested in seeing the film stop reading here.
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Still with me? Great. Talk to Me follows high schooler Mia (Sophie Wilde), whose rambunctious sparkle has been dulled by the tragic death of her mother. She finds comfort with her found family of best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade’s little brother Riley (Joe Bird). When a local party craze catches Mia’s attention, she brings them to a party hosted by Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio) where they get to see the latest obsession firsthand. The game is simple. Light a candle, grip a decrepit object claimed to be the embalmed hand of a medium (or possibly a satanist?), say “Talk to Me” and a spirit will appear before you. Invite the spirit in and let it occupy your body for no more than 90 seconds for the ultimate high. What could possibly go wrong?
Before the situation well and truly goes sideways, Talk to Me excels at giving the audience some “fun & games”. Possession as a party drug is a hell of a concept, and it’d be a shame not to see that realized. The Phillipous have some mischievous fun in a party montage where, among other things, a possessed Mia speaks in French, one of the gang swings on a chair back and forth in a zero-G manner, and the ringleader of debauchery Hayley uses the hand to hold their joint. Talk to Me works well as a genre-bending comedy before it abruptly unveils its true intention.
In an instant, dread takes hold and hovers over the film like a specter. A horrific point of no return, on par with that infamous moment in Hereditary, thrusts the film into full-on horror territory. From that point onward, the Phillipous burrow the terror into the skin, never letting go. A large part of this is due to Wilde, whose scared witless performance is the kind of star-making turn that only this kind of film can provide. Her residual grief bubbles up as spirits past begin to haunt her – figuratively and literally. As she tries to make things right, things spiral further and further out of control.
It’s hard to avoid being vague because Talk to Me’s horror is in a way indescribable. It twists the knife of fear, not allowing the audience to breathe as the situation continues to worsen. The specter of the vicious undead hovers over the characters, as their careless toying with their world has opened a doorway they can’t quite shut. Unlike Danny and Michael Phillipou’s bombastic YouTube videos, it does not front-load the shock factor. Rather, scares come in at the most unexpected moments. This is next level toying with the audience; the kind of mastery that directors well into their career display, not first-timers.
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The influences on Talk to Me are clear. The dead and their possessions resemble the Deadites from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise. A crew of plucky teenagers getting together to defeat a supernatural foe recalls Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street. And the social commentary around the reckless abandon of the youth echoes the renaissance of social horror brought about by Jordan Peele. Nevertheless, this film combines these elements into something entirely fresh. The concept is part of it, sure, but it’s mostly the young and hungry energy brought by the Phillipous that is sure to make them horror voices in their own right, much like the debuts of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers.
Talk to Me is a fully formed vision. The playfulness of its concept gives way to unspeakable horrors, playing the audience like a damn fiddle. Get ready to hear audible shrieks from the audience and maybe make a few yourself. Like the spirits in the movie, this movie will torment you, in constant pursuit until they take hold. Once they do, you’ll be singing the praises of Talk to Me to everyone who will listen. Remember the names Danny and Michael Phillipou. They’ve made their splash on the cinematic landscape and they’re not going anywhere. Horror is all the better for it. – James Preston Poole
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