The ghostly line that connects likes of “The Haunting” to “Poltergeist” and “The Conjuring” is a long and meandering formula that has amused, shocked, horrified and thoroughly bored the long-term veterans of horror films, many of whom are rarely surprised at new attempts in a genre that has visited every dark corner on the supernatural map. But now we must contend with “Talk to Me,” a little surprise hit from Australia, about teenagers who engage in the pastime of connecting with the dead not as a means of curiosity but as an outlet for their hedonism. There is a scene early on that emphasizes the matter: a handful of friends each take turns holding the embalmed hand of a deceased fortune-teller, make contact with a spirit and allow it to enter their body – just long enough so that their cellphones can capture the footage for a viral trend on social media while the others in the room cheer it on. Unfortunately, their practice comes with two ominous warnings: 1) you can’t hold a connection with a spirit for longer than 90 seconds; and 2) if the spirit takes root, it will not let go until it can claim your life as its own. Before long their pleasure, driven by a strange high they achieve after exchanging energy with the souls of the afterlife, is stifled as one of them encounters something that latches onto the body of its living host, refusing to leave until it has consumed, battered and killed the one who dared to make the connection in the first place.
Because we like the characters and have a sense of the experiences that created them, there are legitimate stakes involved in the material. The primary target of the story is Mia (Sophie Wilde), an aimless teenager whose mother passed away two years prior – in a situation that may or may not have been accidental suicide. Others regard her as a stick in the mud at their social gatherings and late-night parties, but when she volunteers to be the latest guinea pig to hold the embalmed hand, her experience elevates her to a star among ordinaries. Something about touching a soul from the dead is intoxicating, so much so that when another evening involving the hand occurs at the house of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), she is quick to undertake it again. And again. Then again. The audience senses the gravity of the pattern: all these repeating encounters with the dead are meant to move her closer into the labyrinth that will lead her to her deceased mother. But will she like the answer she offers? What happens when a connection is held too long with another during such a reunion, and a much more sinister presence latches on?
“Talk to Me” doesn’t venture nearly as far off the beaten path as its premise might initially suggest, but for a ghost story in this era of sensation and relentless visual gimmick, it achieves a sort of gleeful allure by basically being well-written, concisely acted, photographed with skill and intellectually focused on the elusive prize of a plausible climax. Those are four traits rarely seen in unison in any number of recent genre outings, but somehow directors Danny and Michael Philippou have managed to compact them all into a 95-minute yarn that manages to accomplish much more than it is required to. There are moments I was amused, startled, baffled and even confused – and when was the last time you saw a horror film that could stir so many different feelings? In the annals of the recent past, where filmmakers are content to add to the fabric with one-note entertainments or derivative duplicates of much better pictures, here are two guys who have a new idea, pursue it through the labyrinthian abyss of uncertainty and emerge on the other side with something thoughtful.
Is the movie scary? At times, particularly early on when the material is looking for its footing. Consider how the dead commune through their hosts, for example: during one possession, Mia’s eyes gloss over in black and she turns her attention to Riley (Joe Bird), Jade’s younger brother, where the spirit proceeds to inform him that he is being followed by something lurking in the background. This frames a shocking sequence later, when Riley becomes inhabited by a beast that not only wants to hold on, but intends to do as much damage as possible to the body on the outside. One might say this is the divisive moment when the film transitions from being silly fun to serious terror, but there is so much well-placed ambivalence in the early dialogue that we don’t initially suspect more will be amiss than usual. That means his possession hits us with a thud much in the same way it strikes the others off-guard. They are there to have fun with the dangerous and forbidden, not have it stick around and inspire chaos in the relationships and safety of the eyewitnesses.
No person is more central to a rewarding conclusion than Mia. By the laws of all successful modern horror, her grief and trauma are the ideal weapons to yield against the dead, particularly as the spirits move in closer and the reliability of their warnings – villainous or otherwise – are placed in doubt by the contradictory behaviors of others. When her father finally reveals the contents of a private letter written by her deceased mother, for instance, is he telling the truth, or are the differing statements made by the apparition of the mom more factual? What about the warnings she provides regarding Riley? Is her suggestion a sound one, or influenced by a more devious detail? Not all stories of this nature gaze at the dead with blanket scorn, but all the obligatory suspicions rightfully arise when one of them seems to be speaking for the benefit of the living. And just when we think we know where it all might lead, the movie pulls yet another rug out from beneath us, leading to a climax that somehow manages to be both surprising and plausible without being overlong or meandering. A sequel, no doubt, will be a consequence of the open-ended final shot, but that is more or less a given with any successful genre picture of the 21st century. The Philippou brothers, however, have caught a glimpse of something that probably warrants added chapters. Think of how vast, how threatening the world beyond the veil is based on what the characters here endure. Their struggle goes to the advantage of every face under the theater screen that has come to seek a new thrill, and found a bit more than they expected.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Horror (Australia); 2023; Rated R; Running Time: 95 Minutes
Sophie Wilde: Mia
Alexandra Jensen: Jade
Joe Bird: Riley
Otis Dhanji: Daniel
Zoe Terakes: Hayley
Miranda Otto: Sue
Produced by Kristina Ceyton, John Dummett, Noah Dummett, Sophie Green, Ari Harrison, Jeff Harrison, Phil Hunt, Samantha Jennings, Stephen Kelliher, Carly Maple, Daniel Negret, Miranda Otto, Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou, Dale Roberts, Compton Ross, Christopher Seeto and Alex White; Directed by Danny and Michael Philippou; Written by Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman; based on a concept by Daley Pearson