Credit: A24
by Morris Yang Featured Film Genre Views

Talk to Me — Danny & Michael Philippou

July 27, 2023

No doubt this has been said elsewhere already, but the most effective horror traffics in an unreality that’s very much tethered to our real world. Suburban haunted houses of poltergeists and conjurings, complete with a jumpscare-per-minute metric, would surely find an audience, as would a Gothic romance in some fantastical Narnia-esque universe run through DALL-E and divorced from the world of taxes and teenage ruthlessness. But these are the wisps and conjectures of the imagination, happy to remain within its confines once the credits roll and the appropriate emotions are duly expounded. What about horror that stubbornly sticks, like gum to soles, inside the imagination’s recesses, permeating its thin membrane with reality or — at the very least — clarifying the existence of such a membrane distinguishing the comforts of fiction from the clutches of truth?

By no means is Talk to Me, Australian YouTube duo Danny and Michael Philippou’s first foray into feature filmmaking, any kind of profound exegesis on contemporary social turpitude or secular excess. There’s a looseness to its movements that draws perhaps from the directors’ RackaRacka channel, an eschewing of plot over-engineering and thematic stuffing that might evoke sniffy opposition from a select few: the ones who exclusively worship either John Carpenter or Ari Aster. (Ironic, then, that A24 — whose horror poster boy is Aster — just nabbed the film’s rights for a sum in the “high sevens.”) The key to Talk to Me’s formula and future success, however, lies precisely in its rejection of overt didacticism or narrow identity politics, both of which have become endemic in contemporary high-brow horror. (Never mind the exorcisms and found footage. Those underwent rigor mortis more than a decade ago.)

Briefly put, Talk to Me’s formula consists of the same few elements circulating through Netflix and streaming more generally of late: parties, party-poopers, a group setting for the supernatural to unfold, and a tendency for the indeterminacy of group dynamics and human nature to play out in increasingly gruesome ways. Opening in medias res, the film tracks through one such party populated with suburban adolescents, following a young man searching for his brother who, when found, stabs him and then skewers himself in the eye. This initial shock wears off as the Philippous direct us to the more subdued environs of Mia (Sophie Wilde), a teenager who’s just lost her mom and is on track to losing her best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen), to the latter’s new boyfriend, Daniel (Otis Dhanji), who’s also Mia’s ex. One promising night of fun and banter at a friend’s place sours quickly when the group — along with Jade’s little brother, Riley (Joe Bird) — takes turns undergoing an incantatory summoning, the subjects of which only one person at a time can see.

What’s so refreshing, at least when juxtaposed against the dime-a-dozen frat house shenanigans, is how Talk to Me foregrounds the complexities of social interactions and identity construction without sacrificing the dopamine zing of adrenaline. For once, it’s actually conceivable that the events portrayed in the Philippous’ work could have taken place; whether or not the ghoulish specificities are reenacted to a T is not so much the point as how their subsequent fallout — at the very least — confronts the viewer with the grim realization of everyday corporeal existence. This is not to say that the filmmaker twins are pioneers of cinematic realism, but that their uncanny mapping of a Gen Z-ish phenomenology of smartphones, live streams, and transactional social intercourse speaks to us way more effectively and lucidly than the plodding moralism of last year’s Smile. It’s more interactive, literally and figuratively; the teens hold onto the sculpted cast of an allegedly real arm as gateway to the spirit world, and, despite the serious amount of bones broken and blood shed, the film does talk to us with the cheerful resonance of its zeitgeist — that it’s all a game and a meme, until you fuck around and find out.

DIRECTOR: Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou;  CAST: Sophie Wilde, Otis Dhanji, Alexandra Jensen;  DISTRIBUTOR: A24;  IN THEATERS: July 28;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 35 min.

Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.