There are some eerie similarities between the two horror movies dropping in multiplexes this weekend. Both Haunted Mansion and Talk to Me have Black main characters who are vulnerable to dark spirits from the afterlife because they’re coping with grief and loss. The movie based on the Disney amusement park ride is undeniably funnier and has the bigger stars, but the import from Down Under is the better and scarier movie, and so it’s the one I’m drawing your attention to.
The story begins with troubled teen Mia (Sophie Wilde) going to a house party in suburban Adelaide with her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen). It is three years to the day after the death of Mia’s mom (Alexandria Steffensen) by accidental drug overdose, or at least that’s what she’s been told. The kids are watching videos of teens halfway around the world being possessed by a mysterious artifact and debating whether they’re real when their friend (Marcus Johnson) produces the object himself. It’s a life-size ceramic sculpture of someone’s left hand, and if you shake hands with the sculpture and say the movie’s title, you’re supposed to be able to access the next world. Their friends warn that bad things will happen if they stay there for more than 90 seconds. What are the odds that someone hits second 91?
Our main character is Black and Australian, but not Aboriginal. That’s a new thing in movies, and it reflects Wilde’s African ancestry. I wish the filmmakers had engaged race as a subject and Australia’s particularly tortured racial history. Then again, maybe they just cast Wilde because she was the best for the part. You can believe that when you see Mia contact the other side — she convulses, laughs evilly, stares down Jade’s 14-year-old brother Riley (Joe Bird), and says, “He’s right behind you. He’s gonna cut you open.” (For the record, there is no one visible behind the kid.) That scene has some special effects, but the horror comes almost entirely from the acting of the newcomer, who switches between Mia being tormented by buried family secrets and being possessed by something bad.
Co-directors Danny and Michael Philippou are twin brothers from Adelaide who spent years conjuring Hollywood-level special effects on a shoestring budget for their YouTube channel. That skill is evident in the scene when Riley takes the statue’s hand — he is not cut open, but something almost as bad happens to him. Later, the hand’s previous owner (Ari McCarthy) finds about this and is aghast: “You let a kid do it?”
What I find more impressive is that the brothers and co-writer Bill Hinzman have managed to construct just enough of a story to hang their set pieces on without straining. The hand is like a cool new designer drug that Mia’s friends are able to stop using, but she becomes hooked because she wants to see her mother again, even if Mom is decomposing. There’s even a funny comic turn from Jade and Riley’s single mom (Miranda Otto), who knows that her kids are planning a party while she’s at work but encounters a solid wall of denial when she confronts the teenagers in her house. Talk to Me might not strike quite as deep as it wants, but it is a promising debut from these first-time filmmakers, with terrific performances from actors we haven’t seen. It feels like a scary campfire tale with a cautionary bent, and as such, it’s just the thing for summer.
Talk to Me
Starring Sophie Wilde and Alexandra Jensen. Directed by Danny and Michael Philippou. Written by Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman. Rated R.