The best horror movies tend to open with sequences that let you know they mean business, and Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me means business. We’re parachuted into some sort of high-stress situation, as a young man named Cole (Ari McCarthy) roars through a blaring-loud house party looking for his brother “Duckett” (Sunny Johnson). He finds him, barricaded in a bedroom and covered in welts, and tries to take him home; instead, Duckett buries a knife in his brother’s chest, and then stabs himself in the face. It’s a grabber!
It will take us some time to understand what this sequence means, and why it happens. In the meantime, we’re introduced to best friends Mia (Sophie Wilde) and Jade (Alexandra Jensen), and Jade’s little brother Riley (Joe Bird). Mia’s mom died recently, under mysterious circumstances; Jade and Riley live with their single mom, and the script (by the Philippous and Bill Hinzman) creates an authentic-feeling portrait of these two intermingled, broken families, and how they pitch in and pick up each other’s loose ends.
But that’s not what we’re here for, of course. Some of their classmates have started playing a Ouija-style, supernatural party game, in which the participant (victim?) takes the supposedly embalmed hand of a potent psychic and, by uttering the title phrase, begins a hypnotic communion with the dead. They get scared and do embarrassing things, ho ho ho, and everyone shoots phone videos and posts them and has a good laugh. But when Mia and Riley play, it goes sideways fast; it seems that Mia’s mother is talking to her through Riley, a turn so shocking that they don’t quite end the communion correctly, and Riley falls into something that feels like a genuine, frightening possession. And they have to help him – but there are not a lot of options.
Those scenes, of Riley wilding out in full possession mode, are tricky to pull off – one always risks unfavorable comparison with the gold standard of The Exorcist. Suffice it to say that this viewer found them so visceral and overwhelming that I did not think of that film, or much else; the harrowing combination of performance, make-up, and effects is truly unnerving.
The Australian filmmakers, who are making their feature debuts but (and this is significant) crewed the similarly nerve-rattling The Babadook, indulge in some stylish (borderline showoff) filmmaking, particularly the tightly-chopped montages of the various rituals, repetitions, and thrills of their little parlor trick. But that’s not what makes Talk to Me special; it’s the time it takes to establish these characters, their personalities and relationships, their running jokes and eccentricities. It fits right into the much-discussed A24 horror template of big scary set pieces alternating with dread-filled character beats. Their formula gets slagged a fair amount, and it’s easy to sneer at. But considering the alternatives (the geek-show gross-outs of Evil Dead Rise or the jump-filled self-quotation of the new Screams, for example), I’ll take this every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
There are some minor pacing issues separate from that norm; the energy flags a bit around the hour mark, and you kinda know where it’s going, a good long while before it gets there. But even in those valleys, the actors hold the picture aloft. In a cast of ace players, Wilde especially stands out, masterfully navigating the character’s considerable highs and lows while the filmmakers use her, and her audience surrogate status, to cleanly and cleverly play with our perceptions of empathy – and narrative, in a way that makes the closing passages scarily hard to predict. This, folks, is how you make a horror movie.
“Talk to Me” is in theaters Friday.