Grief is a super popular topic in horror movies these days. The Australian horror thriller Talk to Me uses it as character motivation, but has no real interest in exploring it as a theme. Instead, grief fuels a creepy, supernatural thriller that walks a familiar path, quite effectively. Sort of a spin on Flatliners for the social media age (though better than either version of that movie), Talk to Me moves slowly, establishing its characters and not spending a lot of energy on explaining how its premise works. That is fine in this case because the how doesn’t matter so long as the what is interesting. The result is intense and exciting, assembling some old bits in an entertaining way.
Highschooler Mia is dealing with the second anniversary of her mom’s death. When a classmate posts several videos showing people seemingly interacting with the dead through a ceramic hand, she is intrigued enough to try it herself. Unsurprisingly, messing around with the unknown has terrifying consequences.
The idea of a group of characters attempting to communicate with the dead for fun is hardly a new one. Neither are the general effects of that decision. What does feel fresh is both the social media aspect and the focus on character over simple jump scares. This isn’t a slasher movie with ghosts in the place of a masked killer. It is the story of a bunch of teenagers playing with something they don’t understand and paying the price. There are jump scares, of course. It is just that they come from the situation, as opposed to merely being a cheap means of creating tension.
Mia’s emotional struggle is the cause of the inciting incident, which then leads to every awful development that follows. The screenplay starts with why someone would do what she does, logically setting up the scares. It makes the gimmick fit the story, instead of the other way around. This is a well-structured, efficiently-made, genre entry.
The modern twist for the current teen generation seems odd on the surface, yet makes perfect sense when you consider some of the bizarre trends kids have gotten into in recent years thanks to the internet. Teenagers doing something potentially dangerous either for the clicks or to be popular is totally realistic (even if it is an activity they couldn’t possibly comprehend). These kids behaving recklessly, lying to their parents and arrogantly thinking they’re safe inviting who knows what into their world because they obey the “rules” of their “game” is very on-brand. The story doesn’t do much with this angle after the setup. However, it is a good way to get into the plot.
Codirectors Danny (who also cowrote the screenplay) and Michael Philippou aren’t trying to rewrite the book on supernatural horror with Talk to Me (90 minutes, without the end credits). All they seem to want to do is contribute their own take on the “humans experiment with the spirit world at their own risk” subgenre. They succeed by focusing on generating and maintaining suspense, as well as by keeping the story simple.
They also don’t go overboard with gore and violence, using the right amounts of each at the right time. This really is more story-oriented. They don’t exactly stick the landing; the ending is fairly underwhelming and is the only part of the movie I couldn’t truly buy into. Still, Talk to Me is engrossing while it lasts. The cast is game and the directors show a skill for manipulating the usual elements. This is a pleasant little creeper and a nice break from all the heavily marketed summer fare.
3½ out of 5
Sophie Wilde as Mia
Alexandra Jensen as Jade
Joe Bird as Riley
Otis Dhanji as Daniel
Miranda Otto as Sue
Zoe Terakes as Hayley
Chris Alosio as Joss
Directed by Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou
Written by Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman