Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of high school kids gets their hands on a cursed occult object, and after some fun and games, they end up being terrorized by a presence from the other side. It’s not the most original premise. But in Talk To Me — the directorial debut from brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, best known for their YouTube channel — it takes on a new urgency and ferocity with a story that races to its bloody, brutal conclusion without letting up.
The occult object in question is an embalmed hand that supposedly has the power to let people see, and be possessed by, the spirits of dead folk. The process is straightforward: you grab the hand, say “talk to me” to summon a random specter, and then say “I let you in” to invite them to inhabit your body. It’s creepy stuff, and easy to repeat, making it the ideal thing for viral video fame. Suddenly, high school kids in Australia are watching videos of what appear to be possessions, sometimes ending in a splash of blood. Of course, it’s just a hoax, right?
Mia (Sophie Wilde) first experiences the effects of the ritual at a party, and she instantly becomes hooked. Possession, it seems, is as addictive as a drug — especially for teens going through a tough time, where being out of body for a bit is a welcome change. This is Mia, who is grieving the loss of her mother, and who clings desperately to her friends Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Riley (Joe Bird) to stave off the loneliness. Not long after her first experience, she tries it again and — despite objections — lets Riley join in, too.
One important part of the ritual is timing. Let the spirit stay in for too long, and it won’t want to leave. Her inability to stop going back for more possessions, combined with this very strict rule, ends up leaving Mia haunted by terrifying visions, while she’s also trying to save her friend from a living nightmare.
What follows is a fairly standard ghost story, but one that’s elevated by urgency and brutality. Seriously, when bad things happen in this movie, they’re really bad — “I had to look away from the screen” bad. Possessed kids brutalizing themselves, horrifying visions of the afterlife, and deaths that, even when you see them coming, are so violent you can’t help but wince. That’s perhaps to be expected from a film helmed by the proprietors of a YouTube channel full of goofy and gory videos. But the Philippou brothers show a remarkable amount of restraint in Talk To Me. There’s more to the violence than pure shock value; it punctuates the story, which — once it gets going — moves at an unrelenting pace. The twists and turns aren’t necessarily all that surprising, in retrospect, but they come at you so quickly that it feels like you barely have a minute to catch your breath.
If nothing else, Talk To Me is a shockingly competent debut — and not at all what I expected from a horror movie made by YouTube stars. It may be a movie about viral videos — but the film itself is much more than an extended YouTube skit.
This review is based on a screening at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Talk To Me doesn’t currently have a premiere date, but it’s reportedly been acquired by A24 for distribution.