TALK TO ME (2022)

Talk to Me is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

Though it has come into fashion in recent years, I've never really liked the term "elevated horror." After all, what does it even mean? An unnecessary and inherently defensive distinction, it seems to contain within itself an embarrassment about the genre it purports to describe. ("Oh, so you like horror?" "No, no, I like elevated horror.") I've never seen a single explanation of the phrase—whether it's based on the quality of the filmmaking or the social relevance of the content—that wouldn't seem apply to every single good horror movie that has ever been made. (If they came out today, would Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist be considered "elevated horror," while films like Halloween, Evil Dead, and The Thing would not?) Like a lot of such fundamentally meaningless distinctions—literary fiction, prestige drama, artisanal cheese—it seems largely to be a function of marketing.

I have no idea who coined the term, but A24 is probably the studio most closely associated with this dubiously defined sub-genre. Barely a decade old, A24 has released a stunningly good catalog of films in every genre, but movies like Under the Skin (2014), Green Room (2016), The Witch (2016), It Comes at Night (2017), Hereditary (2018), Saint Maud (2021), and Pearl (2022)—among many others—have given it a well-earned reputation as a reliable source of serious, intelligent, quality horror movies that even the snobbiest cinephile doesn't have to be embarrassed about liking. 

Their new film Talk to Me (2022) is both another jewel in A24's horror crown, and further proof that the descriptive "elevated" is just a synonym for "good." The feature debut of Australian twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou—the creators of the popular YouTube Channel RackaRackaTalk to Me is, in most ways, about as straight-forward a horror movie as you can possibly imagine. Its just horror done really, really well.

I suppose I'm thinking about the "elevated horror" thing because it struck me how Talk to Me has exactly the kind of irresponsible teen-age protagonists and sequel-ready supernatural premise usually associated with non-elevated horror franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Final Destination. Some bored teen-agers have come into possession of a disembodied hand that allows them to speak with—and briefly be possessed by—the spirits of the dead. Being teen-agers, they naturally ignore the spiritual and existential importance of this relic, and just break it out at parties for cheap thrills, taking turns filming each other being possessed so they can post the videos to social media.

Further explanations are neither sought nor given. The hand, which appears to be ceramic, is rumored to have a real human hand inside it—possibly that of a psychic, a medium, or a Satanist?—but no one really knows for sure. Nor does anyone really know where the hand originated: covered with graffiti from previous owners, the hand has been passed from person to person like an urban legend, and so, apparently, have the rules for its use. Candles must be lit at the beginning of the ritual, and blown out at the end. You must hold the hand in yours and say "Talk to me" to invoke the spirit, and then say "I let you in" to be possessed by it. The connection with the spirits must be broken after no more than 90 seconds, because, after that, "they won't want to leave." Inevitably, in the spirit of horror films immemorial, these rules get broken, with nightmarish consequences.

So the premise is simplicity itself—ultimately just a new, admirably weird twist on the Ouija board—and in lesser hands it would be used to generate nothing more (or less) interesting than a series of jump scares and some gory murders of disposable teens. But the Philippou brothers are not interested in the sort of cheap "quiet-quiet-BANG" gags that predictably punctuate things like the Conjuring and Insidious movies, and their characters are not disposable horror fodder.

Mia (Sophie Wilde) grasps the disembodied hand in TALK TO ME (2022)

At the center of Talk to Me is a simply stunning feature-debut performance by Sophie Wilde as Mia, a 17-year-old girl still mourning the death of her mother Rhea (Alexandria Steffensen) two years earlier. Alienated from her father Max (Marcus Johnson) since Rhea's death, Mia has latched onto the family of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), becoming a surrogate sister to Jade's little brother Riley (Joe Bird), almost an adopted daughter to their tough-as-nails mother Sue (Miranda Otto), and an awkward third-wheel in Jade's relationship with her boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji), who also happens to be Mia's ex.

There is a touchingly genuine affection in these relationships, but also a subtle resentment and tension. Mia, after all, is kind of a mess: not in the obvious shorthand ways of too many movie teens, but in extraordinarily complicated and believable ways that Wilde uses to infuse the character with genuine, heartbreaking life. Mia is attractive, likable, clever, and incredibly sweet—her relationship with Riley is particularly heartfelt—but she is also needy, emotionally high-maintenance, and manipulative, just a raw nerve of desperate vulnerability. She's that messy friend you love dearly, in spite of—and sometimes because of—the fact that she's kind of exhausting. (Jade, we realize, is beginning to be over Mia's constant drama and neediness: others in their peer group, like surly seance ringleader Hayley [Zoe Terakes], are over it completely.) It's Mia's grief and neediness, of course, that makes her exactly the wrong person to be messing recklessly with supernatural forces.

Further spoilers would be a disservice to the film, but perhaps some general guidance about the horror elements would be appropriate. Talk to Me is not a constant funhouse-style scarefest in the pattern of things like the Conjuring movies, or a steady stream of elaborately preposterous deaths like Final Destination or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Its horror is more cumulatively unsettling and profoundly soul-worrying, though when violence comes—which, to be sure, it does—it is sudden, brutal, and unsparingly graphic. (There are a couple of moments when I was tempted to look away, and I am not particularly a look-away-er.) And both the violence and the potential damnation at stake in Talk to Me are all the more intense and disturbing because the characters at hazard are people, not stock figures or ambulatory props. The Philippous and their excellent cast (young Bird, as Riley, is another standout) infuse the characters with an authenticity that makes this slow descent into Hell much, much more disturbing than it would otherwise be.

There's also a point to all of it, which is one of the essential elements of great horror. Talk to Me's simple premise is one of those brilliant devices that can service a lot of themes simultaneously. The frenzied party scenes in which bored teen-agers experiment with the rush of the supernatural make the hand a handy metaphor for drug use, obviously. (This becomes particularly clear when peer-pressure becomes a factor in Riley's involvement, or when Mia starts to get a little too fond of the rush she gets from letting someone else take the driver's seat of her psyche.) In common with about half of all spook stories—including The Boogeyman and Haunted Mansion, just this summer—grief, too, is a constant theme: the notion that grappling with death (as Mia is doing) opens you up dangerously to internal and external forces that put your immortal soul at peril.

But what I ultimately think Talk to Me is about is connection—or, more to the point, disconnection. Certainly, there is a commentary on the inherent alienation of social media happening in the film, which depicts a society in which everyone is desperate to be seen but terrified of being revealed. ("Film me!" one of the seance participants begs, before his session with the spirits. "Delete it!" he begs, after his encounter with the spirits exposes things he can't bear to have anyone know.) But beneath that timely (if obvious) critique of current teen culture, there are deeper themes of disconnection at work in Talk to Me. The film is full of ignored phone calls, missed connections, people isolated behind doors and headphones, and vital conversations between loved ones that aren't being had. Everyone in the film is desperately craving a connection with the dead: Talk to me! I let you in! But—as the film's near perfect final scene underlines all too well—that's a tragically poor substitute for saying those words to the living.

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