Talk to Me: an electrifying ‘haunted hand’ horror

With the help of an evil ceramic hand that allows the living to be possessed by disembodied spirits, Youtubers Danny and Michael Philippou have updated the teen horror for the social media age.

Sophie Wilde as Mia in Talk to Me (2023)

The debut feature of directors Danny and Michael Philippou, of the RackaRacka horror comedy YouTube channel, is an up-to-the-moment reimagining of the teens-unwisely-evoke-demonic-presences ghost story subgenre. This strain of filmmaking was kicked off by the ‘Captain Howdy’ ouija board sequence of The Exorcist (1973) and typified by the likes of The Evil Dead (1981), Witchboard (1986), Night of the Demons (1988) and Ouija (2014). In this cycle, dabbling with the supernatural is presented as another teenage kick with a considerable downside – akin to promiscuity, binge-drinking or experimenting with drugs. 

Talk to Me gets away from the conventions of spelled-out messages from the beyond with its own creepypasta-style mythos, throwing in social media and online ‘challenges’ as real-world parallels for dicing with demons or contacting the spirits of the dead. An evil object (a ceramic hand which might have real bones) provides instant bad karma when a teenager holds it as if in a handshake and invites a spirit to ‘talk to me’, then allows a perhaps malign, perhaps mischievous entity to control their body for no longer than 90 seconds. One second over and the spirit can retain possession and do serious harm – to the host and those around them.

Here, a limited spell of possession – which lasts about as long as the average TikTok clip – is at once a drug rush, an online stunt and a dangerous dare game. Talk to Me is electrifying when showing the effects of the craze on a small, fractured group of believable, screwed-up young folk. Early on, the brother of a key character who appears to be suffering a (supernaturally provoked) mental breakdown is appalled to find a crowd of friends filming the episode on their phones. Teenage callousness and collective irresponsibility are constants, underpinning characters’ willingness to risk physical and mental injury and humiliation (a lad who’s too Christian even to kiss his girlfriend French-kisses a dog) just to have a clip go viral.

The Philippous use long takes (a stunning prowl-through-a-party prologue) and sudden, sharp visual shocks accompanied by blaring sound effects to deliver the scares, but this has more on its mind than standard teen-horror jolts. An escalating series of jump scares and freak-out effects conveys that the haunted hand – like the pleasures of formula horror – can be addictive and exhilarating as well as disturbing and dangerous. Many horror films invite the audience to distance themselves from the foolish kids on screen, which is why you get titles like Don’t Go in the Basement (1973). This sets up its obviously dangerous pastime so convincingly you can see why kids volunteer for it. 

Talk to Me (2023)

After Riley (Joe Bird) – too young to be allowed to use the hand, but insistent he get his turn – becomes violently suicidal in every waking moment, focus narrows on Mia (Sophie Wilde), haunted by her own dead mother or perhaps her worst fears’ version of her dead mother. Mia tries to put things right for a family who have helped her through a crisis but now worry (probably rightly) she’s a danger to them. Well played by Wilde, this section is sidetracked into more conventional family soap opera. The possibility lingers that the hand doesn’t summon spirits of the dead, but allows users to project their own demons. Early on, it’s established that Mia is a better ‘big sister’ to Riley than his actual sister Jade (Alexandra Jensen), driving out after dark to pick him up when Jade can’t be bothered. But Riley and Jade’s single mother (Miranda Otto) is already in two minds about fully accepting this stray into the house – and Mia keeps going back to the hand even after it’s obvious that the spirits aren’t necessarily who they claim to be and are as deft at verbal cruelty as face-smashing, bone-breaking violence. “Eh, this spirit’s a cunt,” notes one of the hand’s owners, Hayley (Zoe Terakes) after unforgivable things are said. 

The Philippous have apprentice credits on Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Michael also worked on Ursula Dabrowksy’s underrated horror film Inner Demon (2014). Talk to Me is recognisably set in the same Australian suburban milieu, among relatively privileged kids who get in spiritual trouble, as well as trouble with spirits, out of boredom as much as anything else. The film takes things to a logical, extreme conclusion in a disorienting, ruthless finale which raises questions about what spirits want and hints at terrifying answers.  

 ► Talk to Me arrives in UK cinemas on 28 July.