By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Starring Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen and Joe Bird
Directed by Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou
Written by Bill Hinzman, Danny Philippou, and Michael Philippou
As discussed very recently, you really should not improvise when conjuring the dead. These processes have rules and by George, you really need to follow them to a tee. Given all of the mistakes teenagers make in their conjuring games in TALK TO ME, it only makes sense that it is quite possibly the most terrifying film of 2023.
Sophie Wilde stars as Mia, an awkward young woman grieving the recent loss of her mother. She escapes her home’s dark reality by spending most of her time with her best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird). As an honorary member of Jade’s family, she gives herself permission to be a temporary ghost in her own home.
Speaking of ghosts, there is a new game on whatever online micro-blogging video site appears on their phones all the time, which heavily features contacting the dead. The shaky videos are lensed by teens (who are likely far from sober), so it is difficult to make out exactly what is happening. But whatever is happening would take a Hollywood studio’s team of special effects masters to fake. So it has to be real. Right?
One night, the girls sneak out to a house party, and soon, communication with the dead ensues. The mechanics are simple. All you need is this thoroughly graffitied embalmed hand, a candle, and the magic words “Talk to me.” You also need someone keeping time because things do not go well for anyone who convenes with the deceased for longer than 90 seconds.
Mia is the first to volunteer for the experience and learns the process is very, very real. The post-seance rush is exquisite, and all of Mia’s cares seem to drift away for a short yet blissful time.
However, this is the calm before the storm. Soon, Mia craves conferring with the dead. Caught in a supernatural web, Milo barely lives to see the other side of Mia’s obsession. How TALK TO ME handles the fallout from their introduction to this devious appendage is the key to the film’s brilliance.
Nothing up to this point in TALK TO ME is anything you haven’t seen in other horror films. Possession, vengeful and manipulative spirits, seances gone wrong – yadda yadda yadda. The way the film combines all of these elements as a thinly veiled metaphor for addiction and trauma and still amps up the tension to keep the audience guessing is no small feat.
The camera work does a lot of the heavy lifting to create this atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. The performances – particularly Wilde’s – also work to the film’s advantage. That ominous tone is only amplified by black contact lenses, beautiful shots and inspired acting.
Along those same lines, the film’s writing and character development truly set the stage for fright and melancholy. Mia is going through an impossibly bad time in her life, but nothing on screen ever shouts, “Feel bad for the child!” Although she is dealing with a lot, she is much more than her grief. She and many of the other characters are three-dimensional teens trying to get through high school as best they can.
The most thrilling aspect of TALK TO ME is its unwavering commitment to horror. The film shows very early on that it has no intention of flinching at violence, that the camera will cut only when the scene is finished – not when the audience has had too much – and that it will follow through on its promise of prolonged pain. Any character might be next in line for physical or psychological torture, and TALK TO ME is not afraid to twist that knife a little deeper. It should be mentioned that there are some appropriately placed jump scares and some darn good special effects makeup.
TALK TO ME may rely on the personal trauma of teenagers to find an empathetic path to the heart of the audience, but it is far from a one-note film about grief. It is creepy and smart and should absolutely make you question what games you play at your next house party.
A24’s TALK TO ME premieres in theaters on July 28.