Oh, the lengths you would go when you’re young, curious and perpetually hungry for a unique high you haven’t felt before. Just ask the teenagers at the heart of Australian twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou’s plucky debut feature, “Talk to Me,” an accomplished horror film with scares and ideas, however meandering and adrift.
Alcohol, smoking, drugs and what have you are so last season, so pre-social media and TikTok, according to this bunch. In their world, everyone who’s anyone is doing this new thing across viral videos that might or might not be fake: holding an ancient embalmed hand, saying the three magic words that lend the film its title and allowing a dead spirit to possess them. Just make sure the whole process lasts no longer than 90 seconds or you might get stuck with the unfriendly ghost for eternity.
But where did the hand come from, you might rightfully ask. Who are these spirits? How was the 90-second-rule first discovered in the making of these viral videos (and what happened to the initial unlucky bunch who were unaware of this time limit)? Let’s just say the Philippou brothers haven’t thought it through that thoroughly and they likely hope that you also won’t inquire too much when you hop on the entertaining ride they’ve laid out.
This blind acceptance frankly demands a bit too much from the audience. But the ride is entertaining thanks to the filmmaker duo’s insistence to make an honest-to-god horror movie with genuine scares, as opposed to one that merely unsettles and is really about trauma like many well-meaning but lacking genre attempts of the last few years.
Not that “Talk to Me” isn’t about someone’s traumatic past, to be clear. The film’s main protagonist Mia (a sensational Sophie Wilde, whose deep, wide-set gaze this film is made for) is quietly grieving the recent death of her mother. But the Philippous, the duo behind the Australian YouTube channel of shorts known as RackaRacka, seem well-versed in horror to instinctively know that eerily pregnant silences, the slow descents into basements and creaky floorboards don’t mean much if you can’t have your viewers experience a good old-fashioned scare.
In that sense, the two are in sure-handed command of the action as they follow Mia, who spends most of her time at the home of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), around Jade’s hilariously helicopter mom Sue (Miranda Otto, with a delicious sense of humor about her character) and young brother, Riley (Joe Bird). Aided by unassuming production design work, effective make-up artistry and insightful character development (to a point), the Philippou Brothers’ direction flows fluidly as Mia, Jade and Riley eventually find themselves in one of those hand-holding parties.
At first, the experience of it all is astounding—a swiftly edited sequence shows us just how much fun the kids are having and how frightening the grossly ghoulish ghosts they briefly let in look. But all too predictably, things go wrong, first victimizing Riley in ways none of the kids seem capable of stopping.
This is where the film—written by Bill Hinzman and Danny Philippou—starts going sideways, showing the seams of a stellar idea not necessarily supported by a finished story that knows where it wants to go. This is no “It Follows,” the superior coming-of-age horror about teenagers navigating an impossible situation through nothing but their own resources.
But thanks to a wonderful ensemble cast and a searching final act where the undercurrent of rivalry between Mia and Jade surface, you stay with “Talk to Me” anyway, witnessing some creepy episodes in hospital corridors and dimly lit bedrooms. Sadly, all these instances work better on their own as intriguing set pieces rather than adding meaningful dimensions to the story. (It’s no surprise the Philippous are a lot more experienced in short filmmaking.)
Still, the film ends when it should, winking to its breathless audience that there might be some future for “Talk to Me” to expand on its story. And that’s good news since this uneven film is more a showcase of all the craftsmanship and horror knowhow the Philippous are capable of bringing to the genre table than a movie that fully works. For now, it’s not a bad reason to shake hands with this gifted duo.
“Talk to Me” is in theaters this weekend.