January 31, 2023

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‘Talk to Me’ review: An entertaining but uneven Aussie horror debut

3 min read

“Talk to the hand” may be a popular phrase of elated dismissal, but talking to a certain hand has dire consequences in the Australian dread “talk to me”. This directorial debut feature for twin siblings Danny and Michael Filippo belies their previous reputation as “rogue filmmakers” creating sometimes controversial violent, bad-taste comedy videos for the YouTube channel RackaRacka. It’s a decidedly non-jokey supernatural thriller in which a group of Adelaide teenagers get in over their heads playing a magic party game.

A bit of a mixed bag, as the script doesn’t fully ballast the serious tenor, yet it’s a confidently crafted effort with enough intriguing elements to keep the audience engaged, if not particularly scared. It should easily attract international buyers looking for modest-sized but polished genre fare.

After a short, staid prologue, the significance of which is later unclear, we meet high school student Mia (Sophie Wilde), who has been spending a lot of time away from her father (Marcus Johnson) since her mother’s suicide two years ago. She likes the less glamorous family of bestie Jade (Alexandra Jensen), her younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) and their single mother Sue (Miranda Otto) – although it’s a little awkward that Jade is going steady with Daniel (Otis Dhanji), who Mia was the first lover.

All the above teenagers go to a house party presided over by Joss (Chris Alosio) and the somewhat restless-spirited Hayley (Jo Terracs). These two have a trick up their sleeve: a plastered-looking hand grab that looks like someone’s art-class sculpture project, but supposedly the detached, waxed edge of “a psychic.” Yes exactly. Say a few magic words, however, and something alarming happens: the person holding the hand first spies some ghostly spirit, then becomes “possessed” by them. No one else can see what they see, yet the eccentric behavior results in some pretty spectacular, sometimes very embarrassing, Snapchat posts.

Eager to shed her weird-girl-whose-mother-killed-herself image, Mia volunteers, then pronounces the experience “amazing,” if a little scary. Soon she and Jade are organizing another such gathering themselves, while Sue is safely out for the evening. But this time things spiral out of control, especially when Mia makes the reckless decision to let little Riley be “pretty.” He appeared much, much worse for wear. It is now feared that the evil spirits on the other side of the supernatural divide have “crossed over”, and are no longer controlled by the Hand or its users.

In basic concept, “Talk to Me” resembles a number of recent occult/curse thrillers, as well as “Flatliners,” with the young protagonists being held back by some predatory force to which they foolishly open a portal. But the screenplay here tries to add depth to the premise that it’s not just haunted, but affected by grief: Mia desperately hopes to connect with the late mother whose loss she can’t accept, and she’s not the only character. Here is rendered vulnerable by such desires.

Skilled actors play these higher-than-normal psychological stakes in a haunted movie. Their sincere efforts only go so far in giving “Talk to Me” emotional weight, though, while its balance of melodrama, melancholy mood and imagination is relatively smooth in handling but shaky in screenplay.

The whole “hand” thing is left a bit of a mystery, which is fair enough. But the storytelling is otherwise too literal-minded to be so vague about it. Not only does it leave open the question of where it came from, but who/what the evil spirits are, whether they have a way of going insane, if they can transfer from one body to another, etc., makes the chain of events even more confusing. Cleverly an ironic ending is nicely done, yet needs more punch if it doesn’t muddy those waters further.

Still, the main complaint here is that the elements of “Talk to Me” are truly horrifying, shocking, and mind-blowing — it’s just a disappointment that they’re not executed smart enough, as opposed to merely entertaining. As recent mainstream-ish horror entries go, the result is still below average. With welcome resistance to rote jump-scares and a sleek, handsome visual aesthetic, along with solidly professional package contributions, Phillips is highly recommended to beginners who’ve already put their prankster days behind them.

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