Screenshot from Talk to Me, featuring the mummified medium's hand gracefully reaching out as if to be shaken with a lone candle in the background

I Don’t Get Nightmares: Scaring Yourself with Talk to Me (2023)

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“Have you seen the group chat? They’re doing it again tonight.”

Back in high school, there was a game that some friends and I used to play. We would go over to the house of one particular kid, whose parents were seemingly never home, and we would take turns. Whoever’s turn it was would bend over, hanging their head down close to the floor and breathing fast and shallow. Then they would stand up suddenly and press the palms of their hands against their throat, cutting off their air until they passed out.

What’s more, this was not a game that was unique to my group of friends, nor one that we had invented ourselves. It’s apparently called “the Choking Game,” and it’s common enough that Time magazine did a scare piece about it back in 2018.

I mention all of this as context for the fact that Talk to Me may be the most credible supernatural teen horror movie ever made, simply by dint of the way that the kids in the film turn the medium-istic hand into a party game, heedless of the larger questions it raises, or the possible consequences of their actions – until it is too late and those actions have come home to roost.

There is a moment in Talk to Me, after the film’s MacGuffin has been introduced, and after a couple of seances have already gone in frightening or unsettling directions, when the style turns to montage, set to upbeat music, as the kids do what kids do, and all take turns grabbing onto the hand and letting themselves become possessed by the spirits of the dead, snapping photos and cracking up at their own antics, even when those antics become horrifying.

If you are not already convinced of Talk to Me’s greatness after that montage, you may never be.

A screenshot from Talk to Me, featuring the graffitied and mummified medium hand being gingerly displayed by a young person in front of another young person looking pensively down at the hand

Hailing from the Land Down Under, Talk to Me is the feature film debut of twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, who are known for their successful YouTube channel, RackaRacka. It’s also a movie that’s pretty much guaranteed to suffer from its own hype. I’m already seeing people calling it the scariest movie of the year – and it may well be!

But here’s the thing. Talk to Me doesn’t need hyperbole like that. It’s solid enough, inventive enough, entertaining enough, and personable enough to stand on its own feet, and word of mouth will hopefully propel plenty of people into theaters as packed as the late-night screening where I caught this dynamite flick.

Talk to Me takes its time introducing its central device, but it never feels slow. From a truly disorienting cold open to the introduction of each of the characters, every beat in Talk to Me feels like it happens when and how it needs to. And when the hand does finally come into play, it doesn’t disappoint.

As the trailer for the flick makes clear – assuming you’ve seen it – the conceit here is that the hand of a medium has been embalmed and given a ceramic coating, covered in scribbled graffiti. If you light a candle and then grip the hand like you’re shaking it and invite the dead to appear before you, they will. And if you invite them in, they’ll possess you.

A screenshot from the trailer of Talk to Me, at the moment when one of the young characters is being possessed, head tilted to the sky and mouth open and eyes black, silently screaming

This goes sideways almost immediately, and yet the kids keep playing because, as I said above, that is exactly what kids would do. It isn’t until the threats and uncomfortable revelations turn to actual violence that things take a hard turn, but by then, of course, it’s too late.

Talk to Me sells all of this with pretty much every tool in its toolkit. The performances are all fabulous, especially Sophie Wilde, who is tasked with both holding the center of film with one of the most believable horror protagonists in a while, and also flipping creepily into other personalities as she is possessed more than once. She accomplishes both admirably.

Supporting the performances are everything from the cinematography to the soundscape, which always manage to be unsettling, inventive, or even funny, as the situation demands. There are precious few jump scares in Talk to Me, yet it is among the most “commercial” and entertaining horror flicks that A24 has ever done. For the most part, however, the horror comes less from shock than from dawning realization, a trick that can only be pulled off because the characters feel lived-in, their relationships fraught and tangled, but real.

This genuine affection for the characters allows Talk to Me to be cruel – and oh, is it ever, before the end – without feeling mean-spirited. It’s a tightrope that so many movies fail to walk, and this one makes it look effortless.

At this point, I am probably in danger of engaging in that hype I mentioned earlier. I’m not going to argue that Talk to Me is the best film of the year – though it is the best film I’ve seen so far this year, handily – or the scariest. But it might just be the first great horror film of 2023. And if it’s not, I’m looking forward to seeing whatever is…

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Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, game designer, and amateur film scholar who loves to write about monsters, movies, and monster movies. He’s the author of several spooky books, including How to See Ghosts & Other Figments. You can find him online at orringrey.com.

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