Talk to Me
Danny & Michael Philippou's feature debut brings a fresh coat of paint and energetic style to ghost movie conventions.
Film Yap is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Last year, sketch comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’Know’s Zach Cregger knocked audiences’ socks off (and mine) with his feature directorial debut, Barbarian, a horror film that was alarming, amusing, and sociopolitically armed in equal measure. This year, Danny and Michael Philippou, known for their horror-comedy YouTube channel RackaRacka, are the new funny kids on the spooky block with their own feature debut, Talk to Me.
Of course, comedians turning to horror isn’t just a trend of the past year. Jordan Peele, who everyone used to know as the “Peele” of Key & Peele, has now been in the scare game for the better part of a decade. Stoner-comedy director David Gordon Green has a Halloween trilogy under his belt, and is working on one for The Exorcist. I don’t claim to have the keen enough understanding of either comedy or horror to give an insightful analysis of what makes the jump from the former to the latter such a natural one. But it’s clearly a creatively fruitful (and lucrative) path, and, in many cases, has injected some much-needed new flavor to the horror landscape.
So far, I’m loving the trend, and Talk to Me, while not quite as “wow”-inducing as Barbarian, is yet another feather in the comedy sphere’s collective horror cap, and a display of impressive directorial skill from the Philippou twins.
Mia (Sophie Wilde) feels alone. Since her mom died of an overdose, she’s practically a new resident at the home of her friend Jade and her family, and while she certainly feels close to both Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and her younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), she can’t help but feel like she doesn’t truly belong. At her own home, she’s grown distant from her father ever since they lost her mom. To make matters worse, Jade is now dating Riley’s ex-boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji). At least they’re on good terms.
Amidst meeting Mia’s found-family unit, the film deftly introduces us to its central conceit: a hangout craze sweeping the local teen demo that involves, in short, taking turns as vessels through which the dead can speak to the living. We see TikToks on Mia’s phone of kids being possessed by wayward spirits at parties and saying wacky, cryptic things, their eyes becoming abyssal black portals to the hereafter, much to the amusement of their peers.
It’s treated like a party trick, a drinking game, a hot new drug. 90 seconds of being a dead person’s mouthpiece, and then you’re back. The popper of séances. It’s called, “Talk to Me.”
I love this premise. Of course teens are going to be the ones at the front of this. Teens are at the front of everything. If high schoolers found out they could talk to the dead with no apparent consequences, why wouldn’t they? My high school cross country team did arguably more dangerous things in the name of far less exciting entertainment.
Of course, Mia, Jade, Daniel, and Riley have to check it out. So they find their school plug, too-cool-for-school duo Hayley and Joss (Zoe Terakes and Chris Alosio), who are in possession of a creepy ceramic hand, the device used in all the viral party clips to connect users to the afterlife.
So they do the thing. “Talk to Me.” It’s horrifying at first, but addictive and funny afterward. The Philippous use a tilting frame to immerse us in the feeling of giving up bodily control to unknown forces, and frenetic editing to convey the momentary terror (and the immediately ensuing comedy) of the dangerous, stupid behavior that’s so appealing when you’re young.
But it’s only funny until someone gets hurt. And it’s a horror movie, so. Yeah. Shit goes south.
Maybe I hadn’t properly put myself “in the zone” for a horror movie, or maybe the film’s opening just did a clever enough job to lure me into a sense of comfort and levity via all the party antics—probably both—but when things start to go wrong, the degree to which they go wrong was brutally shocking. Maybe it’s just the sheer level of graphic violence against a young person that makes it so viscerally unnerving.
Either way, it reminded me of the first time we meet The Mother in Barbarian, only more broadly lit and drawn out, so you really get a good look at the nastiness. When the horror arrives, it comes out swinging.
In the aftermath, the party is obviously disbanded, and everyone is left to ruminate on their reckless behavior. But Mia saw something, in the moments before things fell apart, that she can’t shake. Something she needs to see again. And so we enter the stage where “playing with things you don’t understand” becomes “knowingly abusing what you think you understand.”
It’d be a crime to talk about this movie’s strengths without heaping praise upon Wilde’s performance. Mia is in tatters throughout the film, consumed by grief over her mother, barely held together by the adrenaline rush and empty promises of a game that lets you interface with the dead. Wilde nails every twitch, every hollow smile, every thousand-yard stare. It’s one of my favorite leading turns of the year. And when she’s playing Mia as a ghost-puppet, she’s electric—hilarious and unsettling in the same stroke. If you’re one of those who constantly complains about bad acting in horror movies, A) maybe shut up? and B) look no further. Here’s a horror film absolutely carried by the power and dynamism of its young lead.
I would love to say the entire film matches Wilde’s energy, and for awhile, it does. But at a certain point, the cool premise and compelling lead aren’t enough to stave off the malaise of tired tropes and underwritten relationship drama. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film runs out of steam or fumbles its ending—I actually quite like the final destination, even if it’s not surprising—but it does lose some kinetic fervor as it wades deeper into melodrama and has to tangle with wrapping up loose threads.
Still, this is a hearty and exciting jump to the feature format by the twin directors, and I’ll gladly add them to my list of filmmakers to watch. Wilde too, for that matter. Talk to Me is a more muscular and more daring Insidious, geared slightly in the Gen Z direction. And if that’s your starting point, I’m in. Talk to me.