The feature film directorial debut is a make-or-break moment for any up-and-coming filmmaker, but it feels like even more pressure to succeed is placed on those who transition from other artistic endeavours into the director’s chair. Whether it’s actors, musicians, or in the case of the new Australian horror flick, Talk to Me, YouTubers, there is an extra layer of curiosity (and occasionally scrutiny from more jaded viewers) to see whether these artists have a bright future in this new artistic realm, or perhaps, they should stick to their strengths.
For twin brothers Danny and Michael Phillipou, making content has been a foundation of their lives since they were young, hyperactive boys making amateur films and wrestling videos in their backyard. So much so, that in 2013, the Phillipou brothers launched their hit YouTube channel, RackaRacka, which over the last decade amassed over 2 billion views and 6.8 million subscribers who would tune in to their overly energetic videos that often contained insane, professional-level practical effects, stunts, and violence. These high-production value short films separated Danny and Michael from the majority of basic vlog and reaction content that YouTube was known for and landed them a chance to pursue their greater vision – being feature film directors.
After years of script development, and almost making their directorial debut with a Hollywood studio, Danny and Michael chose to make the film independently in Australia so they could hold on to their own vision of what Talk to Me was to them. Then came the next hurdle – showing the film to the world. And there could’ve been no better reception for their film after it’s shockwave-making debut at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, in which Talk to Me not only was a critical and audience success hit for the festival, but also started a distribution bidding war in which indie-darling A24 secured the rights and began rolling the Phillipou brothers hype train into full speed. Now with the film’s global release inbound, the question will now arise for the audiences awaiting – can the “guys from YouTube” actually make a decent movie? In short… yes. Yes, they goddamn can. Not only is Talk to Me one of the best horror films of 2023, but it’s also one of the most thrilling and exciting movies of the year in general.
Mia (Sophie Wilde) is still struggling with her grief on the anniversary of her mother’s death. Unable to find a way to discuss her feelings with her father, Mia usually finds comfort and solace in being around her best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen), and Jade’s younger brother, Riley (Joe Bird) – her second family. As the rise of a new viral trend involving people becoming “possessed” as a high captures Mia’s interest, the trio find themselves at a local party in which Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio) claim to have an embalmed hand that can allow spirits to possess those willing to let them in and give the willing participant the most ultimate high imaginable.
The only caveat for the spiritually euphoric experience is that those using the hand must not stay attached for more than 90 seconds, otherwise, the consequence that follows, as so sinisterly put by Hayley: “They’ll want to stay”. Hooked on the high, and ultimately using the hand for ulterior motives, Mia makes contact with something far more terrifying than anticipated, unleashing a supernatural force that beings to physically, emotionally and psychologically torture Mia and her friends.
Bookending Talk to Me with two shocking, yet technically incredible one-take scenes, and with a fantastic array of tension-filled set pieces in between, the hyper-active energy that the Phillipou brothers injected into their YouTube channel unapologetically and unabashedly bursts onto the cinema screen. Unafraid to move the camera around in unique and visceral ways to truly capture the terror, the direction of the Phillipou brothers is not only technically impressive for a feature film, but it feels like a fresh voice within horror. Sudden 90-degree angled tilts when a door slams or the camera rotating around as a possessed participant unnervingly (and unwillingly) moves their body around, create this undeniable immersion into Talk to Me’s excitingly wicked world. A standout scene, both visually and based on concept in general, is a possession-based montage that plays to the hard-hitting rap of Australian group OneFour that, basically makes getting consumed by a demon look like one of the most exciting and cool things someone could do. It’s scenes and moments like the possession montage that showcase Danny and Michael Phillipou’s desire to be unique within the horror space and back themselves to play with different elements of the genre. But even in the moments that require some good-old horror tension, the use of lighting (or specifically darkness) and a classic slow camera pan around a room still create the uneasy feeling needed to be effectively scary.
A technical element of the film that is worth praising is the sound design (that should absolutely be experienced in a surround sound cinema). The eeriness of what can only be described as distorted animal sounds, specifically the clicking and puckering of a kangaroo (which has significance to Mia’s story), or the squelching sound of rotting ghost flesh, creates an extra layer of uneasiness when it’s used, adding to the overall horror experience.
Another essential horror element that the Phillipou brothers had in their arsenal from the RackaRacka days was their ability to shock the audience with violence. While Talk to Me isn’t necessarily as frequently bloody and gory as many modern horrors are, its sparing use of violence and emphasis on toe-curling brutality lends to some hard-to-watch moments, but ones that will also be considered memorable, iconic moments in horror cinema. Head bashing, butcher’s knives and contorted bodies provide an ample amount of squirm-in-your-seat factor throughout. The use of practical effects is on full display, specifically the use of make-up and visual effects for the ghosts that are encountered during the seances. The disturbing visual stylings, complete with rotting, blacked veined skin and blacked-out eyes, to the gruesome injuries that some characters succumb to throughout, are all brought to life by amazing and immersive practical effects.
However, at the core of Talk to Me is a truly heartbreaking and touching exploration of grief, through the eyes of Mia. As exciting and terrifying the horror elements of the film are, the horror is always grounded by the brilliant screenplay from Danny Phillipou and Bill Hinzman (from a concept by, of all unexpected people, the executive producer of hit children’s show Bluey, Daley Pearson) that puts character first over shock value. The entire plot revolves around Mia’s desire to contact her deceased mother again, and the lengths she will go to for it to happen. The narrative is played out and explored with a truly authentic emotional depth that can often be sidelined in other horror-type ventures, and it is another refreshing element that the Phillipou brothers bring to this film.
That emotional narrative is only made even more immersive by the outstanding performance from Sophie Wilde, who is completely electric on screen. Mia’s grief is never melodramatically played by Wilde, but rather shown through a subdued, pained performance that only grows more desperate as Mia becomes more connected with the spirits being conjured by the embalmed hand. Not only is Wilde’s dramatic performance brilliant, but her willingness to completely lean into the possessed aspects, which included creepy voice distortion and unhinged bodily movements, lend even more depth and range to this star-making, breakout performance. Another performance worth praising is that of Joe Bird as Riley, who is another actor who brings the authenticity of a 2020s teenager in a terrifying situation like this to the screen. And when things become quite confronting for Riley, Bird’s performance immerses you in the terror. Having fully rounded characters, especially teenagers in horror films, is another testament to how well the script puts all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Talk to Me is an explosive, energetic, emotional, and, most importantly, truly terrifying directorial debut from Danny and Michael Phillipou. Their unapologetic dedication to making a visceral and brutal horror flick, that plays around with the genre’s conventional elements in a unique and refreshing way, is only enhanced by the gripping dramatic narrative as it’s core, brought to life by Sophie Wilde’s fantastic performance. Talk to Me isn’t just the most exciting horror film of the year, it’s also one of the year’s best films.
TALK TO ME is in cinemas Australia wide July 27, courtesy of Maslow Entertainment.
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