The Midnight section at Sundance Film Festival is always one of my favorites. As I have said before, horror allows for a lot of ways to diversify and surprise audiences. The first is a new take on the dangers of doing a seance, and the other is a coming-of-age werewolf story. Both of these films take something we have seen before but make it their own. Each of these features a young but bold female lead and marks feature film debuts which makes this even more exciting. I love new and emerging talent, and this year’s Midnight section had some bangers!
Talk to Me (Daniel and Michael Philippou)
Seances and communing with the dead are stories that have been in horror films for quite some time. The medium used to do so have varied and the consequences have changed, but it generally doesn’t work out well for those involved.
History repeats itself in Talk to Me, but in new and inventive ways, as it brings our present climate very much into play.
It’s become a viral sensation, of course, because does it really happen if it isn’t recorded? A group of friends takes turns gripping what looks like an ancient hand and repeating words to conjure a spirit. From there, they start a timer of 90 seconds to not be trapped for too long.
Mia (Sophie Wilde) is mourning the loss of her mother and around the anniversary, is restless. One night she suggests participating to her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and her brother Riley (Joe Bird), and she takes the plunge. It’s a rush and having seen the potential, it’s hard to stay away.
Terrifying but Thrilling
What occurs is a mix between the Exorcist and a scene from Ghost, but with a distinctly new fervor. A character is taken over by a spirit for a time, but who they are and what their intentions are, varies. Sometimes the response is comical, and others… dangerous. When the door is kept open too long, the spirit doesn’t return to where it came from.
This is the crux of this film where the characters should know better but don’t, and are then forced to correct things Riley suffers injury.
Miranda Otto has a supporting role as Jade and Riley’s mother, confounded when her son goes through an ordeal she can’t make sense of. Sophie Wilde portrays the lead confidently imbuing a sense of regret and determination that make her an actress to look out for. It’s a film that I wish would have dived more into the characters, but the short length time, they never felt one-note.
Hailing from Australia, directors Daniel and Michael Philippou capture a frenzied vision with a style that fuels the pulse-pounding moments, but occasionally feels off in the editing room. Talk to Me is terrifying in the way that it punishes with consequences fit for carelessness while also creating characters we can sympathize with. Mostly though it feels tight and tense, which is what you want from a potent 95 minutes of entertainment.
What works in Talk to Me is the vibrancy, the effects, and the creepiness that doesn’t rely on too many jump scares to make its mark. The script written by Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman provides the energy for the young cast to feed off of. This feature debut may feel simplistic, but it’s bound to make the audience wriggle with an apt amount of style and spark. I can’t wait to see what comes next from these two.
This supernatural showing takes a new spin on an old concept making it both creative and creepy when needed. I was hooked. Maybe let’s not play with spirits?
My Animal (Jacqueline Castel)
Werewolves seem to be making a comeback in recent years and I am all for it. It’s been a subgenre that truly seemed to peak early on, and I feel it’s one that needs a fresh bite.
Enter My Animal, a coming-of-age romance about a young woman in a small town who falls for the new girl. But, she has a secret, one that forces her to cuff herself to her bed at night when the moon is full.
Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) feels like an outsider. She wants to be a hockey goalie but is looked at as inferior because she is a girl, despite her talent, and she is forced to keep part of her identity hidden, all while dealing with an alcoholic mother and difficult family life.
When she meets newcomer Jonny (Amandla Stenberg) she’s enamored. Jonny is outgoing, a talented figure skater, and someone who brings out a side of Heather that she hasn’t shared before.
There is definitely violence and chaos but it is stoked by yearning and angst. It makes for the ideal sort of struggle with human and animalistic urges while grappling with familial struggles. As a vessel for loneliness, lycanthropy can be a powerful folklore guide. When it’s powered by sexual longing and the pressures a young queer woman could face it is especially impactful. Some of the plot points, especially when it comes to the hollow bullying side characters and the family performances (though Stephen McHattie provides an interesting turn as the father) aren’t as strong and feel more cliche.
Regardless, this is Bobbi Salvör Menuez‘s movie and she is especially compelling as Heather. When she finds her strength by the film’s end it culminates in an explosive fashion.
The film occasionally threatened to waver, but my attention did not. With a haunting moody feel and an innovative premise, My Animal keeps the bloody werewolf genre fresh and alive.
A coming-of-age queer werewolf story? I’m here for it.