The moment you glimpse a harried mum incongruously chopping veggies in the midst of a heaving, strobe-lit house party in the Adelaide suburbs during the frenetic, one-shot cold open of twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou’s frighteningly good horror debut Talk to Me, something in your bones tells you the term ‘Chekhov’s gun’ – in which a firearm spotted will almost certainly be shot later – needs updating. The ching-ching of Emma Bortignon’s razor-sharp sound design slices and dices it and, suffice it to say, this Chekhov’s knife does not disappoint.
Much like the original Scream (1996), this chaotically good opener – illuminated by the eerie glow of a battalion of torchlit smartphone live-streamers oblivious of the mayhem that’s about to unfold – is only loosely connected to the story we’re about to follow.
Mia, played by a luminous Sophie Wilde (Eden), has more or less moved in with her bestie Jade (Alexandra Jensen, Frayed) after the suicide of her mother drove a wedge between her and her father (Marcus Johnson), whom she is convinced is holding something back. But with Jade distracted by her buttoned-up boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji), she forges a closer bond with Jade’s sweet 14-year-old bro Riley (Joe Bird).
After picking him up from the park one evening, the film – co-written by Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman – slams us with another sure-fire signifier of incoming doom: gruesome kangaroo roadkill.
Back home, The Clearing star Miranda Otto, as Jade and Riley’s mum, works nights, allowing the teens to slip out to a boozy party hosted by the spiky Hayley (Wentworth star Zoe Terakes), who isn’t a fan of Mia, and Joss (Surviving Summer’s Chris Alosio).
In a visually fun spin on the Ouija board rite of passage, they’ve acquired a creepy stone hand that somehow allows anyone who grasps it a dead-line direct to an icky parade of rotting cadavers with The Exorcist-style potty mouths. Mia’s into it big time, but what begins as hijinks becomes fully jinxed when Riley, whom the spirits seem to clock as fair game, exceeds the 90-second limit recommended. Once opened, a door to the spirit world is particularly hard to close, after all.
Good old-fashioned practical effects turbo-boost Talk to Me’s ewwwww factor, unlike way too many contemporary horror movies that sacrifice the visceral chills to CGI. Rebecca Buratto’s hair and makeup design, ably assisted by prosthetics whizz Cassie O’Brien Pollard, magnificently realises both the haunting ghosts and the monstrous transformation of the teens allowing themselves to be taken for a ride.
The Philippou’s daredevil stunt work on their high-energy YouTube channel RackaRacka and childhood love of wrestling ensure we feel the weight of every blow. Their directorial instincts are engaging, no mean feat for a feature debut, with both Cornel Wilczek’s unnerving score and the sharp eye of Aaron McLisky’s kinetic cinematography helping Talk to Me’s creepy hand antics to stand head and shoulders above.
But it’s the emotional anchor of this instant cult hit’s character work that seals the spooky deal with the devil. The directors care about Mia, Riley and co and want us to invest in them too, a 101 that got lost, for a while there, with the indeterminate body parts of disposable torture porn victims.
The young ensemble is spot-on, easily allowing us to identify with and fear for them when the dead refuse to let go. As with all horror movie parents, Otto is used sparingly but makes the most of her surprisingly sassy mum, almost as fond of the swear jar as the jarring-voiced spirits with an icy grip on her son.
Wilde’s lingering despair is palpable, with the spirit world offering her not only an out-of-body experience to escape the numbing pain, but also the obsessive possibility of reconnecting with her mum, an addiction in no time. Bird is brilliant in his particularly harrowing sequences, with even the most battle-hardened horror fan likely to wince at the seemingly self-propelled assaults on his sweet young head.
But for all the terror, there is also a spunky teen spirit with attendant doofus humour that’s sure to strike a chord with local audiences. The film greatly benefits from the Philippou’s insistence on shooting in Adelaide with age-appropriate Australian actors. Doing it their way is undoubtedly why Talk to Me was such a scene-stealer at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – after debuting at the Adelaide Film Festival last October – landing a North American distribution deal with indie powerhouse A24.
It speaks from beyond the grave with a uniquely Australian voice that’s abundantly appealing to the rest of the world.
Talk to Me is in cinemas from 28 July.