Horror films are in something of a renaissance these days. A combination of small budgets and high demand mean that the genre is becoming one of the few places in the current cinematic landscape where new, interesting voices are consistently gaining traction. “Talk to Me,” the debut film of directors and twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou — known previously for their YouTube channel RackaRacka — is the newest of these films to make some noise. While its commercial success — nearly $70 million in global box office gross on a $4.5 million budget — is an exciting sign that audiences still crave new independent films, the product sadly does not carry the same excitement. “Talk to Me” has most of the parts necessary to be an effective horror film, but the elements it lacks prove large enough to overcome the good things.
The film primarily follows Mia (Sophie Wilde) and Jade (Alexandra Jensen), two high school best friends who become intrigued by a trend among teenagers in their area involving an embalmed hand and supposed spiritual possession. Mia and Jade, along with Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), sneak out one night to go to a party hosted by Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio), the owners of the hand. Mia gets a taste of the hand’s power; through a series of verbal commands — including the phrase “Talk to me” — an apparition appears in front of her and then possesses her until she lets go.
Mia was enthralled by this experience and has Hayley and Joss come over to Jade and Riley’s house the next day for more possession fun. In the midst of the festivities, Riley becomes permanently possessed by a spirit and winds up almost killing himself by bashing his own face, leaving him in critical condition. The kids hide what happens that night from the authorities, instead working to find a way to reverse the possession on their own.
These initial scenes introducing the spiritual forces at play in the film are wonderful. Shrouded in equal parts intrigue and existential terror, there is real hope at the beginning that “Talk to Me” could become a new modern horror classic. The camera work and effects employed during the scenes between the characters and the hand are unique and visually interesting. An uncanny sense of near-realism in these moments of supernatural horror connects the viewer with the characters on screen, even if the terrors they are experiencing are outlandish.
But after all these cool components are introduced, the narrative has to take place — and it’s one that has very little going for it. After the accident, Mia obsesses over uncovering the secrets behind the hand and learning how to reverse its curse. The resulting film is a mystery that quickly loses all of its suspense and winds up a meandering, convoluted plot of loose ends and poorly developed characters. For the majority of the film’s run time, it is seldom scary and, in the few minutes it is, the scares are consistently of the same nature. The audience is quickly clued in on when scares will happen and how they will go down, and the film never breaks from this formula.
“Talk to Me” winds up being another horror film that falls into the trap of having a compelling framing idea and a handful of well-crafted scares without a nuanced plot. With little aesthetic novelties beyond its initial setup making up for a lack of narrative depth, the lasting impression the film makes is a generally boring one. Sure, it will jolt you a few times and give you a couple of disturbing images, but none of it is effective enough to remain etched in your mind after you walk out of the theater.
Many audiences are used to how horror movies work and many are fully desensitized to the standard jump scare. Films have to work a little harder in order to instill fear in a viewer, and “Talk to Me” ultimately fails to rise to the challenge.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California studying Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.