Horror has a special place at Sundance, in recent years debuting features such as The Witch and It Follows reminding us that there are plenty of innovative and fresh genre pieces at the festival. The 2023 slate’s Talk to Me reminds us that sadly not every piece can be a reminder of the brilliance of the genre, yet Talk to Me has some strong ideas simply in need of a slightly sharper execution. Directors Danny and Michael Philippou explore the idea of demonic possession through a brash group of Gen Z partygoers navigating the boundaries between the realm of the dead and living.
Danny Philippou co-writes with the brothers’ long-time collaborator Bill Hinzman, drawing influence from features such as Flatliners that touch on when madcap fun veers into flat out danger. Talk to Me centres on a group of party-loving Adelaide teenagers who discover how to conjure the dead through an embalmed hand – prompting an adrenaline rush like no other. Grief-stricken 17 year-old Mia and her best-friend Jade seek out this high, hoping it will repair the distance in their friendship whilst Jade’s impressionable 14 year-old brother Riley tags along for the ride.
Talk to Me opens in raucous suburban house party – there’s a loud, chaotic energy followed by a brutal scene of a reclusive visibly distraught figure launching a violent stabbing attack on another guest before turning the blade on his own skull. A sea of mobile phones are raised to document this moment as opposed to helping the victim. Danny and Michael Philippou give us a foreboding indication of the horrors that this new party game are set to quickly descend into, whilst also giving an insight into the role social media plays in enhancing the ‘viral potential’ of the powers that the embalmed hand brings.
As Talk to Me introduces us to its brood of Gen Z protagonists, it finds some of its strongest horror beats in the interactions with the otherworldly token. Falling into the habit of filming one another’s trips to the ‘Other Side’ there are some impressively gruesome horror aesthetics. Of course the usual demonic voices and contorting limbs are present, but Danny and Michael Philippou pack in some quite striking surreal and sinister images from the gouging of eyes and the odd naked zombie person lingering around. Surprisingly the most horrifying scene comes from one character’s possessed trip and his interaction with an excitable pet dog. There are plenty of well executed jump scares amidst these possession scenes, whilst the young character’s desire to exploit their friend’s demonic encounters for social media likes is equally chilling.
Talk to Me’s momentum veers downwards when getting too entangled in its depiction of Mia’s own grief, lessening the tense impact of the standalone horror moments. Whilst it makes sense to have a character who seeks something more than social media aplomb for her otherworldly trips, it does not contribute a huge amount to the overall horror of the feature – instead mainly diluting it and causing much of the previously established tension to hit a dead end.
The dangers of peer pressure in the social media age adds a new dynamic to the adrenaline fuelled playing with fire horror dynamic, whilst some strong genre visuals and an atmosphere of unease help Talk to Me impress. Expected beats about character grief hamper the tension slightly, but Talk to Me shows strong promise for filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou.