‘Talk to Me’: A horror movie with heart and gore


(3 stars)

“Talk to Me” is a different kind of ghost story: one about the horrors we inflict on ourselves.

In most films of this kind, it’s the innocent victims who inspire our empathy: the family moving into a suspiciously low-priced house; the girl in the wrong place at the wrong time; the kid who just happens to encounter a malevolent entity. But “Talk to Me” places culpability for its dangers in the hands of its teenage protagonists — quite literally, in the form of a plaster hand, said to be the embalmed, severed appendage of a dead medium. By clutching it, in séance-like gatherings, its characters invite in the supernatural, well aware of the consequences. They give, in other words, informed consent. Still, they’re like children, playing with things they don’t understand.

Co-directors Danny and Michael Philippou, 29-year-old Australian twins who achieved viral success with their horror-comedy YouTube channel RackaRacka, make their feature debut with a story whose central figures are frustratingly adolescent. After a well-received premiere at South by Southwest, “Talk to Me” was picked up by the indie distributor A24.

The opening scene sets the tone for the movie, and it’s a brutal one. A party rages on as a young man searches frantically for his brother — anxiety intercut with swearing. His brother hasn’t been acting right, and no one else at the party seems to notice or care. When he finally finds his brother, the missing sibling is incoherent. Suddenly, the deranged man attacks his brother, stabbing him and then shoving a beer bottle into his own eye.

So much for brotherly love.

This early set piece does more than hint at the film’s bloody entrails. “Talk to Me” is also a story driven by platonic love, a force that causes characters to confront danger so that they may connect with the ones they care about.

The narrative centers on Mia (Sophie Wilde), a teen still reeling from her mother’s death two years ago and growing estranged from her concerned father. In a misguided attempt to make herself feel better, she attends a party where the centerpiece is the aforementioned hand, whose origins are murky.

The rules for the spooky gathering are simple enough: 1. Pick up the hand and say “Talk to me” to commune with the dead. 2. Say “I let you in” to allow a spirit of the departed — you don’t get to choose who — to take control of your body. 3. The communion must not go on for more than 90 seconds, or there will be dire consequences. 4. You light a candle to open the door to the beyond, and blow it out to close it. 5. If you die before you’re able to close the door, “it” — the hand? the spirit? — keeps you.

The results are said to make for hilarious Snapchat videos.

It’s peer pressure and adolescent arrogance in their most basic forms, delivered with snappy dialogue that feels authentic to the Gen-Z milieu but leaves anyone with a fully developed frontal cortex wondering why this terrifying act has gained social status. But the film is also an addiction allegory of sorts.

After participating in the ritual herself — simultaneously exhilarating and unholy — Mia and a boy named Riley (Joe Bird), the brother of Mia’s best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), retreat to Jade’s place, where Mia shares what scares her, tenderly removing his Bluetooth ear buds and turning off his phone after he has fallen asleep on the couch. All three actors are exceptional, but Wilde and Bird captivate in an effortless way. Both use their bodies to elevate their performances.

It’s small, human moments like this that make the horror all the more terrifying by contrast. When the entities control these young people, forcing their bodies to contort and act in inhuman ways, the spark of their humanity is extinguished. Between shocking moments — unwitting bestiality and multiple, ghost-assisted suicide attempts — the film’s genuine notes of sibling bickering and the desire to give those you love a little peace are refreshing for a horror film.

There is no such peace for the viewer. The film is full of visceral sounds, disgusting special effects and numerous plot twists. The gore in “Talk to Me” isn’t overdone, but it is gag-inducing. According to the directors, it was achieved by using practical effects, enhanced with CGI to amplify the terror.

There’s nothing revolutionary about the premise of naive idiots attempting to get closer to death. (See: “Flatliners”). But it’s the ingenious combination of horror and human connection that makes “Talk to Me,” well, something to talk about.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong, bloody violence; some sexual material; and coarse language throughout. 95 minutes.


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