Only a month ago, I lamented that possession stories and hauntings were no longer enough to pass muster in horror cinema. Ever since the 2016 election, the horrors of COVID, and racial violence gone amok, nobody’s scared of generic two-dimensional interchangeable demons anymore like we were back in the Obama years.
I was genuinely worried that Talk to Me would turn out to be just another generic possession story made long after its time. And indeed, the film does start out on a depressingly awful note with a cast made almost entirely of crass and outrageously unsympathetic teenage dipshits. But then a crazy thing happened.
Then again, this is a horror movie. It would be more accurate to say that MANY crazy things happened.
The premise revolves a strange ceramic hand covered with all sorts of markings and graffiti. It’s not entirely clear quite what this is or where it came from — beneath the ceramic layer could be the severed hand of a spirit medium or a Satanist of some kind. What’s known is that the hand is part of a ritual that allows for communication with the dead, the relevant details of which are as follows.
- Light a candle to open the door, blow out the candle to close it.
- Grip the hand to make contact, take the hand away to break contact.
- Be sure the living subject is tied down tightly.
- Summon a random spirit (it’s a different experience every time) by saying “Talk to me.” Allow for spiritual possession by saying “I invite you in.”
- No possession can safely continue past 90 seconds.
- Anyone who dies in the middle of an active possession is lost to the spirits forever.
Somehow, this hand came into the possession of a couple Australian delinquents (Hayley and Joss, respectively played by Zoe Terakes and Chris Alosio) who invite all their dumb little buddies over for supercharged seances as a party trick and social media gimmick. This goes about as well as you’d expect.
In other words, what we’ve got here are a bunch of sexed-up drunken teenagers desperate to do something stupid for the attention and approval of their peers, going to parties and passing around an object so blatantly dangerous that it could give them a uniquely mind-blowing experience while also potentially killing them.
Put even more simply, we’ve got demonic possession as an allegory for recreational drug use. Gotta say, that’s a new one to me.
The allegory gets even deeper with the involvement of Mia, our de facto protagonist played by Sophie Wilde. Mia’s two years out from her mother’s fatal overdose, and she’s acting irrationally as a direct result. A possession story with a protagonist in grief for a loved one is of course nothing new, but the application here is ingenious on so many levels.
Because Mia is so lost in her grief and so apathetic towards her widowed father (Max, played by Marcus Johnson for all the tears this brief role is worth), she’s that much more motivated to do something stupidly and awesomely self-destructive. (Again, the recreational drugs allegory.) But she hasn’t thought it through. With the involvement of best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and her own family (little brother Riley and mother Sue, respectively played by Joe Bird and freaking Miranda Otto), Mia comes to realize far too late that her own reckless actions can indeed have a catastrophic impact on those around her.
There’s another huge development when Mia makes contact with the spirit of her dead mother (Rhea, played by Alexandria Steffensen), or something that closely resembles it at least. Thus Mia is taken on such a monumental high that she keeps obsessively taking hits trying to get that same high again. Even better, precisely because this is the ghost of Mia’s mother spurring her on and telling her everything she wants to hear, we’ve got the seductive and mind-altering aspect of this “drug” illustrated in a chillingly poignant way.
The upshot to all this is that Mia only ever wanted to try these possessions because she didn’t want to be alone. But she became addicted to these possessions, going after them so many times to such progressively unstable extremes, she’s made herself too dangerous for anyone else to be anywhere near her. Thus she tragically ends up more alone than she ever was, with no company to keep her but that (literally) damned ceramic hand.
(Side note: Looking at the film on IMDb, it looks like pretty much everyone in the cast got a writing credit. I have no idea why, and I don’t see these writing credits anywhere else. Take it with a grain of salt, I guess.)
I’ll admit that the pacing is a bit wonky, and it takes roughly half the running time to get up a good head of steam. It certainly doesn’t help that we’re spending most of that running time with deeply unsympathetic young assholes and waiting for their dreadful fate to happen already. Still, the movie starts with a bang and maintains a general creepy vibe throughout, so it’s nice that the pump is primed when the horror finally starts in earnest. And honestly, the touch-and-go pacing kinda kept me on my toes in the back half, especially around the turning point into the third act.
The ending is another potential issue. Your mileage may vary as to whether the ending really explains anything or comes out of nowhere or anything like that. But let’s be real, no film with this premise was ever going to have a pat ending that ties up everything in a neat little bow. Plus, it’s horror, the genre where “fuck you” endings are — for better or worse — the standard.
As a microbudget A24 horror film and the feature debut of twin Australian filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou, I’d say Talk to Me definitely qualifies as a sleeper hit. It’s the ingenious “possession as drug allegory” premise that makes this film work as well as it does, presented with numerous thematic layers. The filmmakers somehow used the horror presentation to make the statements more thoughtful, intelligent, heartwarming, and distressing.
The premise is inventive, the cast is committed, and the presentation is creepy as fuck. Definitely worth checking out.