Strong Debut Invites You to Play a Horrifying Game

Jan 27, 2023

Sometimes, horror can be downright nasty. This doesn’t just refer to the gore, but the way it is all used. In Talk To Me, the feature debut from YouTubers turned directors Danny and Michael Philippou, possession becomes a way by which to pulverize their characters. It is these moments that are the highlights of the experience in all their stomach-churning viscera. As they get more outrageous, it comes at the audience with brutal and bloody cinematic madness that makes the most of the chaos that unfolds before you.

Even when the film isn’t able to maintain this same kinetic energy and is often more of a spectacle than it is fully scary, the ride along the way can still be a lot of fun. It has drawn some comparisons to director Sam Rami’s Evil Dead which, while not entirely off base, do overstate its creativity ever so slightly. However, when the film grabs hold of you in a couple of standout sequences, there is still something delightful in how it embraces the depravity without blinking a bloody eye.

Operating in proximity to the transmissible curse subgenre, Talk to Me begins with a man wandering through a party looking for his friend who is not acting like himself these days. When he finds him, we see that he is clearly having a really rough time. More than just a bad trip of some kind, he subsequently kills his friend and then himself while shocked partygoers record on their phones. We then meet Mia, played by Sophie Wilde in her feature debut, who is drawn to taking part in a ritual that allows you to let the spirit of someone who has passed on into your body. It is like a supernatural Russian roulette as you have no control whatsoever over who may come knocking or what they may want to take from you once they do.

This game is what all the cool kids are doing these days as we see videos of them gathering at parties to take in the chaos of the supernatural. All you have to do is grab hold of an embalmed hand without letting go, say the right words, and your body is no longer yours. The only rule is that it must not go on for any longer than ninety seconds or these spirits may want to stay around forever. When Sophie tries it out for herself, it works exactly as explained, and she is thrilled by the experience. She and her friends then decide to do it more, testing fate each time without a care in the world about the inevitable looming consequences.

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It is these possession sequences that are the heart of the film and where it is most engaging. While more creepy in an over-the-top fashion than it is fully scary, the flair with which it brings them to life is quite fantastic. Observing the various characters vanish while something else takes over their bodies is played with an eye for the extreme. In one moment, a character begins mocking the sexual activity of another before having what is essentially a supernatural orgasm before making out with the dog. You know, just fun party times for everyone to enjoy.

When he subsequently awakens, he is incredibly embarrassed while everyone else laughs and gawks at his misery while posting videos online to share with others as he runs out of the room. There is possibly a light undercurrent about what the film is trying to say about how youth culture is wrapped up in vapidity, but that is the least interesting aspect of the experience. What makes it all work are the thrills that come from the characters peering into the great beyond and discovering something is peering back. For Mia, this becomes personal and ties into familial horrors from her past that she begins to question her present understanding of.

This more serious element of the story can feel like it is a little underdeveloped, but it doesn’t cause too many issues once everything begins to get really gruesome. If anything, the way Mia has repressed her past and how it then gets brought back to the surface makes it all the more menacing. Her growing realization can only come after a truly grim sequence for which she is partly the cause. Without spoiling the revelation of who it is and what happens, a younger character close to Mia becomes grievously injured after he stayed under the control of a spirit for too long at her urging when she recognized who it was that had taken over.

There is an audacity to this sequence as the film pushes it further and further. It goes on for so long that you wonder how this unlucky character’s head is even attached let alone whether he is still alive. From there forward, even as the story can be a bit shaky at times, just taking in the fallout of this moment holds it together. In particular, the growing fear that Mia has about her past and her future ensures the excesses remain grounded enough to keep you engaged.

Are there still some elements where the story could have benefited from a bit more nuance? Absolutely. Does it really matter when a character becomes possessed and begins sucking on the foot of another? Probably not. There is that interesting push and pull where the film seems to want to say something more while still wrapping itself up in the spectacle. The way this culminates in the conclusion actually works rather well, as we see the tragic results of all of Mia’s desperate attempts to find closure and set things right. She carries a heavy weight on her shoulders that no one else on this plane of being is able to understand or help her with.

Throughout all of this, Wilde gives a strong performance, speaking volumes with just her physicality as we begin to understand when Mia is herself and when she very much isn’t. When the tables become turned in an absolutely killer final shot, this all pays off and smooths over any of the problems that may have arisen on the path it took to get there. Whether you can stomach it enough to make it all the way will depend on the viewer, but Talk To Me has plenty that promises to capture the souls of horror sickos looking for a sinister spectacle.

Rating: B+

Talk To Me debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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