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Is Talk To Me the scariest film of the year?

Coming in the blockbuster wake of Barbenheimer, Talk To Me is going straight for the jugular. Can it live up to the terrifying hype?

Sophie Wilde in Talk To Me, possibly 2023's scariest film. Photo: Altitude

Releasing a film just a week after the glitterbomb assault of Barbie and Oppenheimer seems either very brave or very stupid. But the low-budget Australian shocker Talk To Me arrives this week riding a wave of nerve-jangling hype. Admiring reviews called it “wild”, “intense” and “shocking”when it debuted at Sundance in January; it was rapidly acquired for US distribution by A24, the buzzy studio behind unnerving family nightmare Hereditary (in the UK, it will be released by the similarly savvy Altitude).

Ahead of release, canny social media-led PR campaigns have positioned Talk To Me as the scariest film of 2023. That sort of claim comes with an implicit challenge: are you brave enough to watch it?

Adding to the mystique is the fact that Talk To Me is such an unknown quantity. Recent horror successes like Evil Dead Rise and Insidious: The Red Door contain potentially scarring moments but they are pre-existing franchises that are unlikely to reinvent the squeal. There is no such frame of reference for Talk To Me. The combination of an unfamiliar young cast and first-time film-makers (twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, who honed their skills creating popular YouTube videos) gives it some real anything-could-happen energy.

Daring people to buy a ticket also chimes with the premise of a film which combines two equally anxiety-inducing concepts: demonic possession and peer pressure. The possession part is a gnarled, disembodied hand that apparently functions as a direct line to the afterlife. Quite how this supernatural totem made it to the sleepy suburbs of Adelaide remains unclear but it has become a popular attraction at adolescent house parties.

Teens tease each other into performing a ritualised séance – grasping the hand and inviting a spirit into their body by saying the title of the film – and, of course, capturing the freaky results on their smartphones. Struggling local girl Mia (Sophie Wilde) gets in on the action while still processing the recent death of her mother; it is her questionable experiments with the hand that unleashes terrifying forces that affect Mia, her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade’s family (including Lord of the Rings veteran Miranda Otto as a fun but frazzled mum).

While it is artfully made, Talk To Me is unlikely to be labelled “elevated horror”, a divisive term among aficionados usually applied to films that value conspicuous style over good old guts and gore. For better or worse, it all feels viscerally, often bone-crunchingly real.

The Philippous clearly have a knack for horribly ironic timing. One gutpunch scene takes place after a boozy, breezy montage of kids larking around, which makes the escalation hit all the harder.

The young directors also stay focused on consequences of using the hand – a supremely creepy prop, covered in chicken-scratch scrawls like a school kid’s graffitied plaster cast – rather than delving into its origins to try and plausibly explain the source of its unnatural power. (Perhaps they are saving that for a sequel, prequel or spin-off.)

The last time an Aussie horror film came out of nowhere and scared the bejesus out of everyone it was The Babadook in 2014.

Talk To Me is not as theatrical or fantastical as that cursed bedtime story but being more grounded – the way the young cast goof around and tease each other brings back memories of classic Aussie teen soap Heartbreak High – actually increases the level of dread.

So this is that rare case where the hype feels justified. As well as delivering those exquisitely alarming jump scares, Talk To Me burrows through psychological defences and leaves you emotionally wrung out. Truly gripping stuff.

Talk To Me is in cinemas 28 July

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