Because the Face isn't Listening
'Yeah, apparently it's really scary, even for a horror movie,' said one of the regular ticketeers at the Last-Odeon-Standing, rather breezily. 'I mean, we've had reports of people screaming and running out in the middle of the film.' Hmmm. I wasn't really sure what to make of this. I do enjoy a horror movie or five, but I really prefer either something camp and ridiculous, or understated and disturbing. The sort of film that makes people flee in a tizzy doesn't normally fall into either of those categories. But, hey ho, it had received really good reviews, and anyway I'd already bought a ticket for it.
Talk to Me, directed by Danny and Michael Phillipou, opens with one of those fancy long takes which I always find a bit showy-offy (and not particularly scary). A teen party is raucously in progress (and as this is happening somewhere in Australia, I do mean raucously). A guy arrives to collect his younger brother, who has apparently overindulged and is rather the worse for wear. (Still not particularly scary.) He finds his brother and starts helping him from the scene... and then suddenly I found myself with my jaw hanging open slackly and my eyes bugging out of a face which was probably as white as a sheet.
The tone thus established, the film gets on with some exposition, and we meet protagonist Mia (Sophie Wilde), a young woman still struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother, even though a couple of years have passed. She has an awkward relationship with her father, but is well supported by her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade's brother (Joe Bird) and mother (Miranda Otto). But teenagers will be teenagers and Mia and Jade find themselves at a party where everyone is well up for the latest daring craze – a game (well, sort of) where, with the aid of the embalmed and plastered hand of a medium (or a psychic or a Satanist – nobody seems to be entirely sure), the kids take it in turns to invite disembodied spirits into their bodies. But only for a maximum of ninety seconds! This is Very, Very Important.
Well, Mia inevitably ends up having a go and – after a few teething problems – discovers she rather enjoys the experience. What on Earth has possessed her to admit to such a thing? (Well, that's the question, isn't it.) Could the clock perhaps have ticked a few seconds past the ninety second mark? Oh, it probably doesn't matter...
Soon they are having another possession party round at Jade's house and having a really wild time, until, until, until... well, let's just say this sequence goes from being thrilling in the way it skirts the fringes of black comedy, to leaving me cringing in my seat with my head in my hands, without noticeably breaking step or shifting gear. It's absolutely horrible.
Much of Talk to Me is absolutely horrible, in an interesting variety of ways, and while this is arguably what you want from a horror movie, I am aware that many people are not quite as dedicated to the genre as I am. This is not really a film for the horror-ambivalent or merely horror-curious. You have to be up for the proper stuff to get any enjoyment out of it.
For those of us of the true faith, Talk to Me is the good stuff: quite apart from the bits I've already alluded to, I spent much of the film with my face in a glazed rictus of alarm. But on top of this, it's a film with a strong skeleton – it's about something more than just messing with the audience's heads. Hey, we've all been there – you're at a party, everyone's in an adventurous mood, some of the usual inhibitions have perhaps loosened a bit – and the next thing you know, someone's handing around an embalmed body-part and people are using it into invite malevolent spirits into their bodies. (Or perhaps that's just me.) You don't have to be particularly on-the-ball to figure out what's going on with Talk to Me – the film is ostensibly about misguided experimental necromancy, but it's clearly a metaphor for a different kind of experimentation that teenagers occasionally get up to – the initial, rather scary dalliance, then the ensuing buzz, repeated use, and then things going out of control as someone can't help themselves from overindulging. The only real difference is that on this occasion it's a supernatural high.
Viewed this way, Talk to Me is part of a tradition going back to films like Reefer Madness, in that it's basically a just-say-no-kids movie. That the film never feels preachy or hectoring, and retains – I expect – a considerable coolness quotient throughout, is a neat trick, probably connected to the Phillipous' impressive ability to bring their characters and situations to life. The visceral nastiness which makes the film's sequences of gore and violence so appalling is matched by the authenticity of the relationships and dialogue between the main characters, helped of course by solid performances from the ensemble cast.
The only person with much of an existing profile, I think, is Miranda Otto, who takes the stock horror character of 'parent' and turns it into an identifiable and rounded human being. But everyone is good, especially Sophie Wilde in what imagine must have been a rather demanding role – the film finds time to dwell on emotional anguish and everyday human pain in addition to its more spectacular supernatural elements.
I often find myself wondering what I'm doing when I go to see a modern horror movie, as the bad ones are generally appalling, one way or another, and the good ones are mildly traumatic – it's almost a no-win scenario. Talk to Me is... well, a lot of people I know probably would describe it as appalling, and I can see where they're coming from. It's a cautionary tale, but a really grim one, for all the energy and skill it is told with. But as ghost trains go, it's a terrific ride. This is a hell of a movie.