Talk to Me
Australian twins Danny and Michael Philippou, aka RackaRacka, cross over from YouTube videos to the big screen with this super-creepy instant horror gem.
July 21, 2023
An embalmed hand can't click its fingers, not even when it's the spirit-conducing appendage at the heart of Talk to Me. This is an absolute finger snap of a horror film, however, and a fist pump of a debut by Australian twins Danny and Michael Philippou. As RackaRacka, the Adelaide-born pair have racked up six-million-plus subscribers on YouTube via viral comedy, horror and action combos. As feature filmmakers, they're just as energetic, eager and assured, not to mention intense about giving their all. Talk to Me opens with a party that's soon blighted by both a stabbing and a suicide. It segues swiftly into a Sia sing-along, then the violent loss of one half of the Aussie coat of arms. A breakout hit at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it sparked a distribution bidding war won by indie favourite A24, it's constantly clicking, snapping and ensuring that viewers are paying attention — with terror-inducing imagery, a savvy sense of humour, both nerve and the keenness to unnerve, and a helluva scary-movie premise that's exceptionally well-executed.
The picture's outstretched mitt is the Philippous' Ouija board. That withered and scribbled-on paw is also a wildly unconventional way to get high. In a screenplay penned by Danny with fellow first-timer Bill Hinzman, but based on Bluey and Content executive producer Daley Pearson's short-film concept — yes, that Bluey — shaking hands with the distinctive meat hook is a party trick and dare as well. When the living are palm to palm with this dead duke, in flows a conjuring. A candle is lit, "talk to me" must be uttered, then "I let you in". Once heads are kicking back and the voices start, no one should grasp on for more than 90 seconds. Those are the rules as told by Hayley (Zoe Terakes, Nine Perfect Strangers) and Joss (Chris Alosio, Millie Lies Low), who've been getting the ultimate buzz by letting supernatural interlopers take over their bodies, and are also passing that sensation around to their mates at gatherings.
When Mia (Sophie Wilde, The Portable Door) learns about Talk to Me's urban legend-esque possession parties, it's via internet videos. On the anniversary of the worst day of her life — her mother's death, seemingly self-inflicted — she's already fled the silence that lingers with her father Max (Marcus Johnson, Irreverent) for her best friend Jade's (Alexandra Jensen, Joe vs Carole) family, and she's equally up for escaping further. Jade's no-nonsense mum Sue (Miranda Otto, The Clearing) knows that Jade and Mia are sneaking out. What she doesn't glean is that they're taking Jade's younger brother Riley (Joe Bird, First Day) with them, or that they're headed to a haunted hoedown. Here, being consumed by sinister spirits, not consuming booze, is the main thrill. That, and filming whatever twisted chaos happens when they connect with the otherworldly. It isn't all fun and frights and games, though; when 14-year-old Riley takes part, traumatic consequences spring.
There's a touch of Flatliners to Talk to Me, but the Philippous summon up something far more eerie, powerful and engaging than that average 90s effort and its terrible 2017 sequel/remake. Both perturbing and entertaining to watch, their séances understand why that exact blend — unsettling yet absorbing — appeals to Mia and her friends, and why they're so speedily addicted. These altercations with the beyond aren't just a way to push the limits. They're a rush for both the possessed and their pals, who laugh hysterically while bearing witness, record every moment, share it all instantly and, when it's their go, try to one-up every prior spooky visit. As RackaRacka, the Philippous have captured plenty of eyeballs with raucous vids; now they ponder what the next step is for today's teens who've already seen everything online, are used to living their lives and setting their reputations digitally, and are as desperate for a jolt out of their daily routine as everyone in adolescence.
Even better: sharing directing credits, and benefiting from lively cinematography by Aaron McLisky (Mr Inbetween) and sharp editing by Geoff Lamb (another The Clearing alum), Danny and Michael know how to convey that try-anything-once response to teen malaise. Talk to Me starts with a bang — with banging on a locked door, then a freakout, then a gutwrenching turn — but its feverish montage of possessions is one of its best and most immersive moments. Mia and company, even including Jade's pious boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji, June Again), are spirited off on a trip, and the Philippous stage and shoot it as such. No one watching will've gotten deliriously blitzed by giving some skin to the creepiest limb you'll ever see (with the biggest of kudos to the production design team), then becoming a vessel for ghosts, but Talk to Me perfects the feeling of being young, partying, reckless, thinking you're invincible and being up for giving something absurd a shot.
Playing those devil-may-care/devil-may-flow-through teens, but also always playing recognisably messy and relatable Aussie high schoolers, is quite the committed cast. Everyone gives their physical all to the hauntings — getting taken over by ghouls isn't just a unique experience, but a corporeally demanding one — as aided by pitch-perfect practical effects, including the canny use of dark contacts to turn each actors' eyes black. But thanks to Mia's backstory and the grappling with grief that comes with it, Wilde wades through the most emotionally complex territory. The more that her character keeps taking the hand's portal to limbo, the more that the paranormal bleeds into Mia's daily life, and the weightier that Wilde's performance gets. Talk to Me battles survivors' guilt, carting around baggage and internal demons alongside its shadowy forces, with Wilde consistently thoughtful at the heart of it all. When Riley joins the party antics despite Jade's protests, Bird is just as crucial.
Ghouls gnaw, and so does Talk to Me. The Philippous swirl unease, angst and ominousness together with every tool at their disposal — including Cornel Wilczek's (Clickbait) menacing score — then let the end result chomp on their viewers. As deranged sights scamper and shock, and Mia's complicated feelings with them, Talk to Me gets its alarm, panic and distress burrowing deep, yet never stops having warped fun. The film's finale couldn't better embody that tricky mix: it's smart and satisfying to the point of inspiring clapping, and it's as disquieting as everything that precedes it. This won't be the end for the movie's directors, of course, or likely for Talk to Me's world. Indeed, this instant cult-classic flick might too leap into reality: once you've taken this horror ride, people clutching a hand and freaking themselves out with the next Ouija-style board game feels destined to cross over.
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