Talk to Me (2022)
Directors: Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou
Screenwriters: Danny Philippou, Bill Hinzman
Starring: Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Miranda Otto, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio
As the creators of the wildly popular YouTube channel RackaRacka, famous for parodies of Harry Potter, Star Wars and even Ronald McDonald, Danny and Michael Philippou are perhaps not the pairing you’d expect to direct this year’s hottest horror. However, given their history of filming backyard wrestling matches as youngsters, you could argue that the brothers were born to work behind the camera. With Talk to Me, they prove that the past ten years of their YouTube channel has not been a simple case of creating “content”, but instead ten years of the two directors honing their craft.
The feature film debut from the Philippou brothers follows Mia (wonderfully brought to life by Sophie Wilde), a high schooler whose life hasn’t been the same since the passing of her mother. When a video of her friends playing a new game in which they conjure spirits by using an embalmed hand goes viral, Mia joins in and discovers the hard way that once the hand grips you it won’t let go.
The main crux of the story is something we’ve seen before, cashing in on the Ouija board craze and the general tropes that we’ve come to expect from supernatural horror. What makes Talk to Me an original take on a familiar story is how Danny and Michael Philippou take the tropes and conventions of the popular subgenre and portray them through a Gen Z lens.
In portraying both a séance and a possession as a viral trend, Talk to Me immediately creates a believable world in which bored Australian teenagers would willingly risk their lives and embrace sheer terror just for kicks. Why is this believable? Simple… because the internet has proven to us time and time again that teenagers will (and have) legitimately put themselves in danger purely because it is trending online.
Given that the boys from RackaRacka have been in the centre of the social media bubble for the past ten years and have spent the majority of that time in the public eye, their clear understanding of the generation they are representing in Talk to Me should come as no surprise. Perhaps the greatest proof of this is the way in which the characters treat each other and how they react to that treatment.
In a virtual world of cancel culture where those online are viewed only in black and white terms, so too are the characters of the film, with each being represented almost like a high school movie caricature: Mia as the loser who everyone thinks is a “freak”, her best (and only) friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) who is always there to help and stand up for Mia, and the two bullies Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio) who are constantly rude and mean to everyone, all the while putting their lives at risk by introducing them to the Gen Z séance (a Gen Zéance, if you will). In portraying their characters in such a way, the screenwriters risk putting off sections of the film’s potential audience, but it is a portrayal that works in tandem with the themes of the overall picture, commenting on the toxic culture within social media by producing a jarring world in which the characters treat each other the same way they would behind a screen and a keyboard.
By capturing this obscure blend of social media culture, Talk to Me creates an environment in which not only is the supernatural game realistically popular, but it is perfectly believable that our protagonist would take part. Once Sophie offers her hand (literally), so do we, and once the Philippous have a hold of us they never let go. It is in this first game of ‘talk to me’ that we truly see Danny and Michael’s talents as filmmakers. First taking place at a party in which Sophie is secluded and even somewhat antagonised by the two bullies, the scene is immediately set to be one of danger; the danger of the spirits they are conjuring and of the people around Sophie.
From the outset, the rules of the game are clearly explained. Firstly, you grab the embalmed hand, light a candle to open the door to the spiritual realm, and say “talk to me” to allow yourself to see the spirit. Saying “I let you in” allows for the spirit to possess your body, and from there you have ninety seconds to let go of the hand in order to expel the spirit from your body before blowing out the candle to close the door to the spiritual realm. The directors use these rules to create a wicked atmosphere that you can’t turn away from. The idea that it could be a different spirit every time adds a new sense of danger to each new game, all the while allowing for some gnarly practical effects. It is the ninety second rule that really hooks, encouraging you to count down in fear every single time.
Whereas some rules are set in stone others are less clear, such as the danger the spirits present to those they are not possessing. It is with this that Talk to Me’s level of gore, or its kill count, is not very high. Instead, perhaps unlike the hyperviolent style of some of RackaRacka’s YouTube videos, the movie allows for long passages of time with little to no gore or kills, creating an eerie atmosphere that leaves us asking “when” instead of “if”. Once that inevitable moment finally arrives, it solidifies Danny and Michael Philippou as a new directing force to be reckoned with.
Talk to Me may not come to the big screen with the most original concept but, in framing a supernatural force as a viral trend, it does capture the zeitgeist of an entire generation in a way that hasn’t so effectively been done since Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). In a key moment in which Gen Z horror is beginning to truly take off, the Philippou brothers immediately prove themselves as the best to have done it thus far, thanks in part to their use of internet crazes and peer pressure to capture the greatest fear of the social media generation: your life being summed up by a single moment that was posted online; a fate worse than death.