“Talk to the hand” may be a popular phrase of breezy dismissal, but talking to a particular hand has terrible consequences in the Australian horror “Talk to Me.” This directorial debut feature for twin siblings Danny and Michael Philippou belies their prior reputation as “filmmakers on a rampage” making sometimes controversially violent, bad-taste comedic videos for YouTube channel RackaRacka. It’s a determinedly non-jokey supernatural thriller in which a group of Adelaide teens get in way over their heads playing an occult party game.
A somewhat mixed bag, as the script doesn’t fully ballast the serious tenor, this is nonetheless a confidently crafted effort with enough intriguing elements to keep viewers involved, if not particularly scared. It should easily attract international buyers on the lookout for modestly scaled but polished genre fare.
After a brief, stabby prologue, the significance of which is unclear until later, we meet high schooler Mia (Sophie Wilde), who since her mother’s suicide two years earlier has been spending a lot of time away from her father (Marcus Johnson). She much prefers the less gloomy household of bestie Jade (Alexandra Jensen), her little brother Riley (Joe Bird) and their single mum Sue (Miranda Otto) — even if it’s a little awkward that Jade is going steady with Daniel (Otis Dhanji), who was Mia’s first beau.
All the above-noted adolescents go to a house party presided over by Joss (Chris Alosio) and the somewhat mean-spirited Hayley (Zoe Terakes). Those two have a trick up their sleeves: possession of a plastery-looking hand that looks like someone’s art-class sculpture project, but is supposedly the severed, embalmed extremity of “a psychic.” Yeah, right. Say a few magic words, however, and something alarming occurs: The person gripping the hand first spies some ghoulish spirit, then is “possessed” by them. No one else can see what they see, yet the freakish behavior ensuing makes for pretty spectacular, sometimes very embarrassing Snapchat posts.
Eager to ditch her weird-girl-whose-mother-killed-herself image, Mia volunteers, then pronounces the experience “amazing,” if also a bit frightening. Soon she and Jade are hosting another such gathering themselves, while Sue is safely out for the evening. But this time things get out of control, particularly after Mia makes the reckless decision to let little Riley have a go at being “handsy.” He emerges much, much worse for wear. Now there is the fear that the malevolent spirits on the other side of the supernatural divide have “crossed over,” no longer controlled by the hand or its users.
In basic concept, “Talk to Me” resembles any number of recent occult contagion/curse thrillers, as well as the likes of “Flatliners,” with young protagonists stalked from beyond by some predatory force to which they foolishly opened a portal. But the screenplay here tries to add depth to that formula by making this a film haunted not just by ghouls, but by grief: Mia desperately hopes to communicate with the late mother whose loss she can’t accept, and she is not the only character here rendered vulnerable by such longings.
The able performers are game for fleshing out these higher-than-usual psychological stakes in a spooky movie. Their earnest efforts only go so far in giving “Talk to Me” emotional weight, though, when its balance of melodrama, somber mood and fantasy is relatively smooth in directorial execution but wobbly in scripted terms.
The whole “hand” thing is left an enigma, which is fair enough. But the storytelling is otherwise too literal-minded to remain so vague about it. Leaving blank not just the question of where it came from, but who/what the evil spirits are, whether there’s any method to their madness, if they can transfer from one body to another, and so on, leaves eventual plot twists more confusing than ingenious. An ironic ending is nicely done, yet would have more punch if it didn’t muddy those waters even further.
Still, the main complaint here is that the elements are in place for “Talk to Me” to be truly creepy, shocking and mind-bending — it’s just a disappointment they’re not quite smartly executed enough to be all that, as opposed to merely entertaining. As recent mainstream-ish horror entries go, that result is still a cut above average. Welcome resistance to rote jump-scares and a sleek, handsome visual aesthetic, along with solidly professional package contributions down the line, suggest the Philippous are fast learners who’ve already put their prankster days behind them.