Demonic possession is an intoxicant in the scary Talk to Me, an updated twist on the supernatural thriller and one that finds a group of youths taking the notion of a Ouija board to creepy new extremes. The first feature by Australian YouTube stars and twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, it deftly balances smartly written characters with serious scares, breathing new life into a well-trodden movie genre. It also contains a believable portrait of grief, which eventually becomes inextricable from its frights.
The central conceit of the film involves a disembodied hand as a conduit to the spirit world, purportedly the embalmed remnant of a centuries old medium and with the power to open the human world to the restless undead. This hand becomes a sport, a high and a social sensation for a friend group that includes Mia (Sophie Wilde), whose mother’s untimely death a year earlier may or may not have been suicide. Alienated from her absent father (Marcus Johnson), Mia has essentially moved in with best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), but bonded more closely with Jade’s supportive mom (Miranda Otto) and sensitive younger brother, Riley (a powerful Joe Bird).
Being part of this in crowd means participating in a new social fad that everyone is posting to Insta, and that means communing with the mysterious hand, which upon the command “talk to me” reveals a spirit looking to enter the inviter’s body. This diabolical thrill, which the Philippou brothers stage with a simple, bravura camera technique and in one sequence, a ribald house party of free flowing mania, has a 90-second limit; after that, the spirit can remain in the real world to terrorize its host. These nightly seances are captured and streamed on the groups’ phones, a sort of harmless, rite-of-passage high until, of course, they are not, which happens precisely when depressed Mia decides to participate. Guess which recently deceased character is on the other side, waiting to make contact?
To say the events spiral out of control would be an understatement in a movie that prizes practical effects work, reaching their apex in one jaw-dropping sequence where the ritual goes gruesomely, spectacularly wrong after a malevolent spirit intervenes in an out-of-control moment so ferocious (and, yes, bloody) that it sets a new standard in body horror.
That the picture works so beautifully is a testament to star Wilde, whose pathos is palpable and who endeavors to build a portrait of grief and sadness that would pass muster in any highbrow drama. That she brings such gravitas to Talk to Me is why the horror works so well—even as eyeballs are gouged, toes demonically sucked on and apparitions lurk in every shadowy corner, Wilde and her energetic directing duo never lose sight of empathy, thrusting a person we care for into extraordinary peril.
Talk to Me, with its energetic, Grand Guignol horror sequences and believable sorrow, puts a new coat of paint on the supernatural possession thriller, or at least brutally updates it. It is a simple, blunt and very effective horror picture done with verve and heart. The final shot is amongst the year’s best.
3 1/2 stars