‘Talk to Me’ SXSW review – Scary and tense séance horror film is almost perfect

A creepy trend circulating on social media finally reaches the two protagonists in Talk to Me. Best friends Mia and Jade (Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen) are thick as thieves until they play a game that lets participants see the dead. By taking hold of a charm resembling a hand, Mia, Jade and several friends conjure up random ghosts. Opening the door between life and death is exciting for these teens, yet something goes wrong when said doorway doesn’t exactly close.

Talk to Me repeats the allure and repercussions seen in Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners, although this story examines the afterlife from an outsider’s standpoint. For its first act, Danny and Michael Philippou‘s debut teases perfection. Yes, this is another horror film about a supernatural game with distinct rules — like how a player can’t stay in contact with a ghost for more than 90 seconds — but the directors/writers play with their own guidelines in a way that’s refreshing, not to mention frightening. The tension becomes near unbearable with every mini séance.

Something this film excels in is its presentation of the hereafter. Never too defined or overexplored, the next world seen in Talk to Me is ghastly and horrible to look at. Each time Mia and her friends muster up one of the undead, those watching from the other side of the screen will recoil at the sickly sight of these spirits. Kudos to these brazenly nasty reminders of death.

Where Talk to Me starts to fizzle is in the dragged-out and awkward middle act. There, Mia struggles to set things right after her bad judgment lands a loved one in the hospital. In the same breath, the film addresses what was brought up earlier about Mia’s sad and troubled home life. Synchronizing a character’s past trauma with their current horrors is routine and commonplace these days, but not everyone can pull it off. The Philippous, who have no problem building suspense and pulling off a series of successful jump-scares, still have some room for improvement in this one important regard.

Once Talk to Me does get itself back on track and away from its unfruitful trauma talk, it refuses to ease up. Where this story ends up is mean as hell and difficult to forget. A gloomy conclusion isn’t unheard of in the horror genre, but the writers/directors do more than required when wrapping their film up in the most unkind way. This outcome is as brutal as it is biting.

Talk to Me tests the endurance of even the most fearless of horror enthusiasts. This new Australian chiller is indeed centered on a young cast, but the filmmakers’ first feature has no age limit when it comes to scares. The greatest set pieces are the result of stellar performances, macabre visuals and astounding technical work. Not everything works here story-wise, however other better parts ultimately win out. The Philippous have undoubtedly conjured up a horror film that will be talked about for a long time.

Talk to Me had its world premiere at Sundance 2023, then its Texas premiere at SXSW 2023. See the film in theaters on July 28.

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