Burrowed within the leather-bound embrace of the humble cinema seat, there are few positions any human being seems capable of comfortably enacting; mostly consisting of fairly intuitive postures, bipedal bottom against furniture bottom and bipedal back against furniture back. You can only imagine my surprise then, when A24’s recently released horror flick Talk to Me expanded my apparently limited knowledge of the spectacular diversity of seating positions.
Halfway through my spine was flush across the bottom seat, legs jettisoned out and fingers steepled over my eyes. At particularly gruesome moments I pretzeled myself over the empty arm to my left, somehow still stretching for my friend’s hand despite my awkward angle. To be a horror fan brings with it the flirtations of mild masochism both inherent in being spectator, and in surfing through hours and hours of mediocre content. Discovering a film that elicits horror so tangible it has you physically squirming in your seat is then, for lack of a better terms, a rarity and a pleasure.
Directed by Australian twins Danny and Michael Philippou, perhaps more predominantly known by their YouTube handle RackaRacka, Talk to Me is the siblings’ directorial debut after several years of predominantly producing comedy-horror shorts across their channel.
On paper, the film ticks all the goose-bumping boxes of our hackneyed horror tropes. Sophie Wilde stars as Mia, a bereaved teenager still flailing amidst the ripples of her mother’s uncertain death. Sneaking out to a house party, Mia and her friends witness the unlikely truth of a party-trick where a ceramic hand allows willing participants to make contact with otherworldly spirits. Dead mother. Psychic instrument. Put two and two together and it equals shit hitting the fan pretty quickly.
Named a 2020 rising star by the Casting Guild of Australia, it is not hard to see why as Sophie Wilde’s expressive face tracks subtle emotional shifts with the sensitivity of a wild animal. Every character has a ice of teenaged realism to them, from Alexandra Jensen’s volatile performance as inattentive best friend Jade to Zoe Terakes cool and charismatic Hayley. Their adolescence, in all its spiky uncertainty and unabashed defiance, is captured brilliantly in the cast’s performances across the board.
But the characters are not passive victims as the action unfolds. Rather, many of them are active participants drawing the audience further into the nightmare. Through their agency within the narrative, a fresh undercurrent of horror emerges. More than relying on gore and rapid scares, the Philippou’s debut is a startlingly frank portrait of the terrifying places grief and loneliness can lead us. I cannot help but feel it is as much as tragedy as a horror, with Mia’s hamartia being one that resonates with us deeply- to be loved.
This is not to say Talk to Me does not capitalise on its potential for explicit, visual horror. The film’s most memorable moments perhaps stand as such because of their brutal creativity. With occasional exceptions, most genres typically need to continually outrun their predecessors in order to be distinctive – but the horror genre has to sprint instead. In thriving off the dread of the unknown, scares quickly become diluted in their repetition.
Though some of the Philippou twin’s most despicable ideas may sound amusingly lucrative and little else when spoken aloud, their visualisation mutates them into abject horror. Thank God yes, I can assure you that scene with the dog was just a mix of horrifying realistic CGI and puppetry.
Talk to Me swims through the horror stream, gliding into all the tasty stereotypes of the genre’s conventions when you need them. But in its undercurrent there is the flavour of something more nuanced. Like Hereditary, like Midsommar, like Pearl, like just about any horror that’s been worth talking about in the last few years, Talk to Me is terrifying because the real discomfort the viewer experiences is, at its core, human-based.
Strip away the nightmarish visions of the dead that Mia witnesses and we realise the real ugliness the Philippou twins are exposing is the horror of our unruly emotions. The dead are simply visual distractions from the very human, very painful and very desperate terror of ending up alone.