In Talk To Me, a severed ceramic hand is a gateway drug – not to euphoria, but to the underworld.
The latest A24 horror film from twin Australian filmmakers Michael and Danny Philippou, who are most famous for their 2010s horror YouTube channel RackaRacka, is a spine-shivering, catatonic plunge into the depths of hell – one I’d go on again, and again, as long as I’m allowed to close my eyes.
In Talk To Me, teenagers in suburban Australia aren’t addicted to drugs, but to something far more intoxicating than pills or powders: a pathway to hell that lets them dabble in the afterlife. One student is in possession of a ceramic hand, which is said to be the embalmed hand of a medium, which teenagers hold and command “talk to me,” followed by “I let you in,” which temporarily lets a spirit into their body, inducing a euphoric-like trance. The only rule is that nobody can hold the hand for more than 90 seconds, or else the spirit will want to stay.
Grieving the recent suspicious death of her mother Rhea (Alexandria Steffensen), 17-year-old Mia (Sophie Wilde) has become obsessed with watching her classmates’ livestreams of the demented game on social media. She convinces her friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) to go with her to try it out. Mia volunteers to go first: An outsider eager to join the in-crowd, she especially likes the feelings of clarity and loss of control the hand gives her – but after the spirit that inhibits her starts threatening Jade and Riley, the teens rip the hand away from her. It’s not immediately clear the effect the game has on her, but she convinces Jade to have a party at her house the next day so she can do it again.
For a while, everyone plays the game with seemingly no consequences, except embarrassing ones: The spirits occasionally make the teens engage in degrading acts like make out with a dog, or punch themselves in the face. But things go deeply awry when Mia is contacted by her mother through the body of Riley – who ends up holding the hand for far longer than 90 seconds. Mia and Riley both carry spirits within them that almost threaten to destroy them both – particularly Riley. But Mia doesn’t want to let go of her spirit, which she believes to be her mother.
Talk To Me is a genuinely scary film, one where even if you cover your eyes, the sounds of screams will haunt you. It’s a supernatural, otherworldly horror – but the real terror is the bottomless grief of a teenage girl, which Wilde beautifully and unsettlingly caresses like a soft rabbit that if you look closer, has red eyes and matted fur.
When Mia’s father (Marcus Johnson) later reveals her mother died by suicide, Mia doesn’t believe it, beliving Rhea’s spirit who tells her that her father is lying, that he was the one who killed her. For the survivors of loved one’s suicide, razor-sharp, gutting feelings are to be expected. It doesn’t feel like a far cry for Mia’s to be taken to hellish depth; the weight of her denial is simply that heavy. That she would rather believe that her mother is possessed by the devil or murdered by her mild-mannered father than believe she died by suicide is the level of disbelief that can happen in the wake of something so sudden, tragic, and unfounded.
Talk To Me has a beautiful, jittery build-up that mimics the horrors of everyday life. One minute, Mia is sitting next to Riley screaming the lyrics to Sia’s “Chandelier” in the car, the next minute, she hits and kills a kangaroo. One minute, she’s high on the drug of the afterlife, feeling like she finally belongs with the cool kids, and the next minute that same substance puts Riley in grave danger. Things can turn on a dime, whether or not you’re asking the devil to help you.
As the teenagers chant: “Do it, do it, do it” in maniacal bratty voices, urging each other to touch the hand, it induces a stomach-drop: not for fear of what happens when they touch the hand, but from the knowledge that what’s on the other side of peer pressure is so often irrevocably not worth it. But that’s a lesson you have to learn for yourself.
In A24’s aesthetics over plot fashion, the logic kind of falls apart in the third act, save for a delicious ending. But it’s okay that things devolve, because the narrative loosens much like Mia’s grasp on reality. When you’ve seen hell, it’s hard to go back — and only you can judge if the trip was worth it.