Talk to Me review: Horror movie debut from Australian YouTube

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Talk to Me review: Horror movie debut from Australian YouTube

A social media-captured seance becomes a conduit between the living and the dead in this debut horror.(Supplied: A24)

In horror movies, a disembodied hand almost always spells trouble. Who could forget Bruce Campbell's Ash dueling his severed appendage in Evil Dead II? Director Oliver Stone made an entire film about a missing meathook on a murder spree. And then there's 90s stoner classic Idle Hands, in which a teenager's possessed paw goes on a high school prom rampage that culminates in the scalping of a cameoing rock star. (It's a masterpiece, critics be damned.)

Another malevolent hand looms at the center of the new Australian horror movie Talk to Me, in which a house party trick involving momentary demonic possession leads to gruesome consequences for a bunch of teenagers playing chicken with the supernatural.

The film marks the feature directing debut of Adelaide-born, Los Angeles-based twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, aka YouTube creators RackaRacka, who broke out with their 2014 viral smash Harry Potter VS Star Wars and have since attracted a massive global following thanks to their ingenious horror-comedy clips.

The film was shot in Adelaide, where it is also set, and premiered at Adelaide Film Festival in 2022.(Supplied: A24)

The siblings' sensibilities are hardwired into Talk to Me, a nervy, go-for-broke horror movie with lashings of off-kilter comedy and grisly imagery. It puts what feels like the last decade of horror into a blender and serves it up with just enough inventiveness to thrill – a creep show that's destined to become a slumber-party classic for the age of Letterboxd.

It begins in a location right out of a horror-movie nightmare: suburban Adelaide, where, captured in a bravura tracking shot by cinematographer Aaron McLisky, a blowout house party of bored, drunk teenagers rages into the night. It's all teen-movie business as usual until an apparently possessed partygoer comes to a nasty end, the victim of a deadly occult game gone too far.

In a clever variation on the viral challenges that sweep through TikTok, teens have become obsessed with mysterious new videos where their peers get off on the temporary high of being possessed by a demonic force.

After screening at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the film was picked up by indie distributor A24.(Supplied: A24)

Among the teenagers watching are 17-year-old Mia (Sophie Wilde, from Stan series Eden and the BBC's series You Don't Know Me), brooding over the death of her troubled mother; her bestie Jade (Alexandra Jensen), and Jade's younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), who form a kind of surrogate family unit. They're soon invited to a basement gathering run by mysterious 20-somethings Joss (Chris Alosio) and Hayley (Zoe Terakes), where an embalmed hand inscribed with esoteric carvings – and said to have been severed from the arm of a psychic – becomes the focal point of a terrifying but exhilarating parlour game.

If a player says "Talk to me", the hand reveals to them a shadow dimension of ghouls and waylaid souls who exist in the room. Follow that with "I let you in" and they get a mainline hit as one of those anguished entities possesses their body, all while the assembled onlookers capture the transformation for viral posterity.

The catch: the possession needs to be shut down in 90 seconds, or the player might end up with a permanent demonic cohabitant.

You can bet that the 90s version would have been called Talk to the Hand.

The 29-year-old Philippou brothers rose to success with their horror-comedy YouTube channel RackaRacka, which boasts some 6.74 million subscribers.(Supplied: A24)

It's a great premise – Flatliners as a teen-party occult trick – with a spin on the old cursed monkey's paw that works as both an obvious analogy for the high of drugs and a riff on our current desperation to film anything and everything for maximum social media impact.

There's a killer montage of teens taking hits from the hand, as it were, that sees the Philippous in full, thrilling flight as filmmakers: disorientating angles, creative camera movements, a rush of sound and vision to evoke the ecstasy and terror of the high.

They've obviously brought their considerable visual effects experience, and sense of the bizarre, to bear, from some impressive practical work (what appears to be an animatronic kangaroo set to become roadkill) to a string of amusingly off-colour moments (if you've ever wanted to see a possessed teenager making out with a horny bulldog, this is the movie for you).

There are some genuinely gnarly scenes of gore and brutality, too, enhanced by the kind of loud, lurid sound design that takes full opportunity to ramp up the chaotic atmosphere.

It's no surprise that taste-making American distributor A24 was quick to snap the film up after its Sundance screening earlier this year; the Philippous have a head full of seemingly every horror movie to hit the zeitgeist in the last decade, whether it's the explicit references, formally and visually, to Jordan Peele's Get Out, the elevated schtick of Ari Aster (Hereditary; Midsommar), or the spring-loaded crowd-pleasers of James Wan (The Conjuring; Malignant).

At its worst, that might sound like a closed loop of inspiration, of filmmakers feeding on nothing but other horror movies, but for a good while – intentionally or otherwise – Talk to Me works in conversation with its cinematic landscape, reflecting so many of the ways the genre has twisted and turned of late.

"In Australian films, we really like to focus on nature and the bush … But it felt really interesting to see something that was more urban and more about the youth culture," Wilde told ABC News. (Supplied: A24)

The movie has audacious style to spare, and the Philippous' energy is infectious as they unleash a decade's worth of dabbling into a debut that rocks and rolls with relish.

If only they'd committed to running all the way with their instincts and not let the movie take a turn for that dreariest of modern horror crutches: an exploration of trauma.

After a wildly entertaining first half, the narrative becomes preoccupied with Mia's reckoning with the loss of her mother, a grief that becomes the primary motivator for the film's action. (Remember when horror movies were primarily devoted to, you know, unnerving and entertaining audiences, and all the 'trauma' was implied and understood?)

Making her feature acting debut, Wilde is fantastic in the lead, delivering a psychologically fraught, physically grueling performance that would give a seasoned actor a workout – she's going to be a star, for sure – but she's also stretched to the limit by a screenplay (credited to Danny Philippou, Bill Hinzman and Daley Pearson) that doesn't always have a handle on her character's harrowing backstory.
"Creating is just something we've always been drawn to. We've always got to be making something or writing something," Michael Philippou told ABC News.(Supplied: A24)

The dissonance becomes an issue for the movie as the filmmakers struggle to make all their threads cohere. The rules of the game are inconsistent and appear to change according to narrative convenience, and the imagery is rife with the sort of random, scary imagery that – while certainly commensurate with a frayed state of mind – often sits at odds with a more sobering exploration of mourning.

It's a minor enough gripe. The filmmakers, assisted by some genuinely evocative photography from McLisky, arrive armed with enough stylistic brio – and irresistible passion for the genre – that the film comes through with a rousing, loopy finish, one that's both sinister and funny enough to put any misgivings about tonal incoherence aside.

Talk to Me announces a pair of horror filmmakers with great promise. It'll be exciting to see where they go from here.

Talk to Me is in cinemas now.

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