Let me in. Let me innnn!
For as long as there have been teenagers, they have resorted to high-risk behaviors to get their thrills. Drinking, drugs, joyriding, unprotected sex… why not communing with the dead? The first half hour of Talk to Me, an Australian horror-thriller, provides a gripping scenario in which teens use a cursed artifact to allow ghosts to briefly enter their body in an experience that mirrors a drug trip. Like any reckless teen outlet, some use it for experimentation; others out of compulsive addiction; and others as an escape from the pain of real life. The harder and more frequently you hit the stuff, the more likely you or someone close to you is going to get hurt.
This culminates in a truly brutal scene in which an afterlife encounter goes too far and someone suffers a grisly accident: In a normal teen drama, the corresponding incident would be a drunk driving accident or a drug overdose by a first-time user who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. But it’s truly skin-crawling to see it happen in Talk to Me, an act of abrupt supernatural violence in a setting that blends real-life teen troubles with horror elements.
Talk to Me uses this as a springboard for a more run-of-the-mill possession story that has only a few connective threads back to the teen indulgence metaphor the film opens with. And so the film takes a sharp turn for the worse as its one clever idea gets exhausted and we’re back into very familiar haunting-or-maybe-mental-illness-or-could-it-be-both stock plotting. Just a dash of unresolved-trauma-conveyed-as-horror in there, too.
That one horrifying party scene that ends the first act is the film’s only real set piece: The remaining hour of the story feels like a constant buildup to a payoff that never really comes. Even the semi-twist ending, which could have been an explosive catharsis, feels like a little wink rather than a payoff. Talk to Me desperately wants to be an Ari Aster mood-horror–drama piece, but in tone and content it’s really just another generic horror-thriller, and thus becomes deeply boring very quickly.
There’s some weird undertones to the film, too. Talk to Me has a baffling aversion towards sex. Unlike horror classics like Halloween where the teens are horny and boning left and right, the teens here are fully chaste. The grown-ups seem to suspect otherwise, but every innuendo from a parent is met with an uncomfortable eye roll as if they’re talking about eating raw octopus. I guess zoomers are having less sex than any other post-pill generation, but it still feels strangely neutered and puritanical with no obvious thematic purpose.
So Talk to Me is a bit uneven, with a couple incredible thrills matched equally with long stretches of empty, mid-tier tension. You won’t be missing much if you turn it off after the first act. But, to its credit, I will definitely be thinking about the premise and its one great blast of violence for a long time yet.