Actress Sophie Wilde performs a scene in "Talk to Me"
Sophie Wilde in “Talk to Me” (A24)

When’s the last time you saw a truly spiteful horror movie? 

The one that comes to mind for me is last year’s “Speak No Evil,” a demented satire that chews up the idea of politeness for politeness’ sake and spits it out. Other than that, lately it feels like horror movies that take the care to be genuinely mean are far and few between, particularly when it comes to mainstream releases.  But “Talk to Me,” from Australian directing duo Danny and Michael Philippou, is oddly refreshing in that respect, meeting cruelty with a bloody smile. 

“Talk to Me” inhabits a dark reality where apathy has reached a critical level, a world underscored by selfishness and bleakness. This is a world where teenagers are glued to their phones while unspeakable things take place just feet in front of them, the darkness only broken by the light of an iPhone camera. The Philippou brothers, along with co-screenwriter Bill Hinzman, certainly seem to want to say something about our connection to the device we use as a shield between us and the surrounding world. But that line of commentary isn’t as interesting as the film’s staunch commitment to malevolence, the undercurrent theme of addiction pushing “Talk to Me”  towards a nasty conclusion. 

After a shocking opening sequence, we meet Mia (Sophie Wilde). Still reeling from the sudden death of her mother and the mystery that surrounds what happened, Mia has been floating in a sort of emotional limbo. Her relationship with her father is strained at best, and she spends most of her time out of the house with her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen).  Meanwhile, her classmates have grown obsessed with a creepy, allegedly supernatural hand that allows you to convene with  – and then be possessed by – the dead. Videos of classmates writhing and snarling while their peers shriek with delight have been making the rounds on social media, and Mia is determined to give the hand a try. 

Jade, however, is certain that the whole thing is a hoax. But she reluctantly allows Mia to drag her and (much to her chagrin) her younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) to one of the possession parties. There, we see the first in a slew of possessions, each more chilling than the last. These sequences run the gamut from sinister, to outlandish, to crass, to downright alarming, and are the aspect of the film that best positions the Philippou brothers as horror voices to keep an eye on. The obsession with the hand could be likened to a sort of drug addiction, right down to the physical changes characters undergo when they agree to go under. When the hand takes hold, teenagers turn into soulless vessels for the dead with bottomless black eyes, veins bulging out from beneath skin coated in a thin sheen of greasy sweat. 

After Mia’s first encounter with the hand, she marvels over the exhilaration she experienced. The more Mia communes with the dead – including at one point, her mother – the more she craves the ability to do so and the more she is unable to discern what’s real and what isn’t. Wilde is asked to take on a character whose complexities are often obscured by the fact so many of her choices are simply meant to move the plot forward, but she finds a sense of desperation that helps center the performance. As her desire to see her mother pushes her further into anguish and the gulf between her and her friends grows wider, Wilde keeps the film’s extremity grounded, even as her own decisions become increasingly erratic. 

The film’s climactic scene involves Riley taking the hand for a spin, Bird delivering a possession performance so distressing that with time, it might end up in the upper echelon of the genre right next to Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” As a younger sibling yearning for his sister and her friends to think he’s cool, Bird is tentative and tender, desperate to prove himself. But when the possession begins, he takes on an entirely different physicality, bluntly committed to the visceral horror of what is happening inside of Riley. 

This obsession with the hand takes a horrific turn after Riley’s communion with the dead leaves him terribly injured. Despite its role in Riley’s injury, Mia becomes convinced that the hand – and by extension her mother – is the only thing that can help. Addiction has the power to cause even the most stable of people to act in ways that do not make sense, and Mia’s decision to constantly go back to the hand, even when it continues to hurt the people around her, is a direct reflection of that. Mia can’t trust the validity of anything she sees, but what makes “Talk to Me” interesting is that the audience is always a few steps ahead of her. The film doesn’t seem so much interested in surprising us as it does allowing dread to slowly build in the pits of our stomachs as we wait for the inevitable. We are far more aware of Mia’s status as an unreliable narrator than she is, and as she descends further into a seance-fueled nightmare, we are left to watch her come to conclusions – conclusions that we came to scenes before – much too late. 

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.