Grief has been a pivotal element in horror movies, including the Australian gem, The Babadook (2014), directed by Jennifer Kent. In this film, Kent uses a character from an eerie children’s storybook to explore the complex territory of how the act of grieving can interfere with a mother’s daily life and adversely impact her child. Talk to Me is a debut feature written and directed by Daniel and Michael Philippou, which delves into a similar idea of being blinded by grief and uses a object – an embalmed hand – to channel the supernatural into the everyday lives of teenagers. Subsequently, the narrative imparts visceral horror elements that originate from the heavy burden of grief.
The film begins with a long trailing shot of a person navigating a raging teenage party, almost trapping you in the quick violence that breaks out at the end. Interestingly, the only prominent lighting that gives us an idea of these actions is the flashlight of cell phones. Quickly, we move to the story of the 17 years-old Mia (played by Sophie Wilde), who is grieving her mother’s death. She meets Riley (played by Joe Bird), her best friend Jade’s (played by Alexandra Jensen) younger brother, and while driving him back home, she accidentally knocks a young kangaroo with her car. They abandon it in the middle of the road, fully aware that it is in excruciating pain and wouldn’t survive.
Back at Jade’s home, the three of them – Mia, Jade, and Riley – go to a possession party after seeing a Snapchat video of a spiritual possession. Mia volunteers to try it out. The instruction goes that she must hold the embalmed hand, utter the words “talk to me”, and let the spirit possess her for 90 seconds before one of the group members breaks the connection by taking the object away from her hand.
The first couple of tries is scary but thrilling, and the teenagers seem to be making the most out of it until Riley decides to take part in the game and ends up summoning Mia’s mother’s spirit inside him. They cross the 90 seconds-mark and accidentally open up a pathway between the human and the supernatural world. Mia must do her best to close this pathway while being haunted by her mother’s spirits. Soon, she starts losing her grasp on what’s real and unreal.
What makes me most happy about this horror movie is that it neither shies away from gore nor intends to please the audience with an epiphanic coming-of-age in Mia, the protagonist. Bonus: There are almost NO jump scares. The background score and the fantastic performance of Bird are scary enough to make your toes curl in fear. Mia makes mistakes, and she unabashedly suffers for the same. For instance, her insistence to talk with her mother’s spirit opens the channel between the human and the spiritual world. Besides, that embalmed hand looks like a prop straight out of a trunk of Halloween costumes, faintly reminding you of Thing, the pet of the Addams Family.
I am reminded of this supernatural short story called The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs, in which the titular paw is a wish-granting genie that takes away as much as it promises to give to its owner. This embalmed hand is also, thankfully, not another pentagram or ouija board that a bunch of teenagers has chanced upon. Further, the supernatural power of the object isn’t inherently harmful; it is merely risky, which is why it catches the teenagers’ fancy. Right at the start of the film, we are made aware of the direction it can take if its powers are abused.
Mia is struggling with the grief of having lost her mother to suicide. While the memory of the loss makes her strong enough to take responsibility, it also makes her more vulnerable to the cries of the spirits. Overall, Talk to Me grounds itself in the everyday reality of a teenage trend, which makes the horror quotient more palpable and unsettling.