Talk to Me
Danny Philippou / Michael Philippou
Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
Suspenseful and intense thrillers
The phrase “elevated horror” has been thrown around in cinematic circles over the last few years, as horror directors aim for more depth in their stories. The term is meant to refer to horror stories that tie in to social or psychological issues. Many younger creators have touched on topics like social media addiction, grief and generational trauma with their works, a change of pace from the costumed villains of decades past. I recently re-watched a ‘90s film Menace II Society, an unflinchingly violent film about the final high school days of two friends growing up in Watts, California. What struck me most about the film was how every brutal moment had an innocent bystander who would likely face permanent emotional damage due to what they had just witnessed. Though part of a much different genre, Australian YouTubers Danny and Michael Philippou tackle this theme in their new A24 flick, Talk to Me.
Talk to Me revolves around a group of high school aged students who use an embalmed hand cased in ceramic to conjure up spirits. After lighting a candle and holding the hand, they say, “Talk to me,” and a ghost appears to whomever is holding the hand. They then recite, “I let you in,” allowing the ghost to possess their body. The caveat is that after 90 seconds, the spirit will want to remain in the body, so they must let go of the hand and blow out the candle before the time is up. When the younger sibling of one student partakes, the spirit possessing his body causes him to inflict violence on himself, putting him in critical condition and ending the group’s enjoyment permanently.
The A24 project, created by two brothers who own the popular YouTube channel “RackaRacka,” is certainly not the first horror movie to feature kids contacting spirits from beyond the grave. There have been several Ouija board-adjacent horror flicks in which the game goes terribly wrong. Where Talk to Me diverges from the others is its tie-in to contemporary pop culture trends. The teenagers do not partake in the activity to rebel against strict parents; they do it to fit in and gain attention. An unfortunate trend in recent years has been adolescents succumbing to dangerous challenges on social media that bring them harm and, in some cases, death. Though letting ghosts possess your body sounds, um…ill-advised, so does consuming laundry detergent or running across a series of large stacked crates. The film points out the intoxicating effects of fame and popularity, whether in a local or global community. As we see repeatedly, all that is needed to encourage foolish behavior are a couple of examples where nothing bad happens.
The more individual sub-plot of Talk to Me is the stages of grief its protagonist, Mia (Sophie Wilde, The Portable Door), experiences. Having witnessed her mother’s overdose, Mia struggles to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, as does her father. She lives with her friend Jade’s family, as her relationship with her father has been strained. With both having witnessed the life leave her mother’s body two years prior, Mia and her father both struggle to come to terms not only with the loss of life, but what they saw with their own eyes. They each carry the guilt of believing that she could have been saved.
Mia’s infatuation with contacting the spirits compromises her judgment. Not only does Mia play along but encourages Jade’s little brother, Riley, to join in, putting him in a perilous situation against Jade’s wishes. After the teens all witness a violent, horrifying and consequential moment, the fun ends and the ancillary characters drift out of the story. While this puts even more focus on grief-stricken Mia, it also highlights how trends among youth come and go once a sobering and catastrophic moment occurs.
Though Talk to Me mirrors Menace II Society in its depiction of young people witnessing death and violence, the two films hail from completely opposed dramas. Talk to Me ventures into the supernatural while Menace II Society is very grounded in the reality of its time period. A better comparison in the same genre would be the early 2000s thriller Joy Ride. Paul Walker and Steve Zahn play brothers on a cross-country trip who prank a truck driver on a CB radio, leading him on to think they are a woman that is interested in him. Once they reveal themselves, the truck driver wants vengeance and goes on a violent rampage. What the films do have in common is young people seeking attention, letting a game go too far, and having to cope with the horrifying, irreversible results.