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How the Directors of Talk to Me Created the Scariest Movie of the Summer

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Talk to Me, A24's latest horror offering out July 28, is the scary movie of the summer, with critics calling it a "nightmarish collision of the living and the dead" and "an all-out nerve-jangler."

The film is currently sitting at a Rotten Tomatoes score of 95% heading into its opening weekend, making it the highest-rated horror movie of the year so far. Meanwhile, on TikTok, videos related to Talk to Me have received over 60 million views to date.

Acquired by A24 following a breakout premiere at Sundance, the feature directorial debut from Australian filmmaking brothers and RackaRacka YouTube creators Danny and Michael Philippou puts a modern spin on a tried-and-true horror trope: otherworldly possession.

"I've always been fascinated by possessions and the paranormal, in general," Michael tells TIME. "When you watch videos of people being possessed and see these horrible things happen, how much of it is mental perception? How much of it is you telling yourself that you're hearing or experiencing something as opposed to reality?"

Read more: 21 Underrated Horror Movies You Probably Haven't Seen

Talk to Me gives a grieving teen a hand

The story centers on teenager Mia (Sophie Wilde), who has turned to the family of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) for comfort following the death of her mother, rather than deal with the distance that's developed between her and her father (Marcus Johnson) in the past year. She's vulnerable, and clearly struggling—and eager to take any opportunity to get out of her own head, even for just a little while.

When Mia starts seeing videos circulate on social media of her classmates grabbing hold of a white ceramic hand and appearing to be possessed by spirits that are conjured from it, she decides to check out what the fuss is all about. At the next party, she's the first to volunteer to take the hand—which is supposedly the embalmed, severed appendage of a dead medium—for a spin.

The rules of the hand are simple: Light a candle, clasp the hand, speak the words "talk to me," and invite the spirit in. But no matter what, don't leave the door to the spirit world open for more than 90 seconds.

"What happens after 90 seconds?" Mia asks before her first go-around. "They'll want to stay," replies her classmate Hayley (Zoe Terakes), one of the hand's keepers.

A spirit enters Mia, transforming her face into a demonic mask, and she experiences the unparalleled high of possession as her peers whip out their cell phones to capture it all on camera and post it online. But, of course, things go awry and the spirit ends up overstaying its welcome, setting Mia on a course of increasingly terrifying and violent events.

Sophie Wilde as Mia in 'Talk to Me'
Sophie Wilde as Mia in Talk to MeA24

According to the Philippous, making the central haunted object a hand, a physical representation of connection, was a decision rooted in personal experience. When he was 16, Danny was badly injured in a car accident and couldn't stop shaking after he was taken to the hospital—until his sister sat next to him and held his hand.

"The shaking stopped. The touch of someone I love brought me out of it," he says. "The power of that moment and the power of touch really stuck with me."

Read more: 10 Low-Budget Horror Movies That Have Terrified Audiences

The horror classic that inspired Talk to Me

Talk to Me plays like The Exorcist for the social media generation, and the filmmakers cite the 1973 classic as an inspiration.

"All the horrific scenes in The Exorcist are so rooted in character," Danny says. "The mom's reactions to everything feel so real, like her trying to figure out [what's happening to her daughter] and, after everything, finally succumbing and going to the church and asking them about exorcism because there's no other possible answer. It was always in my head to try to have characters that feel as real as she did."

Unlike in The Exorcist, the characters of Talk to Me quickly accept that demonic possession is real and use it for fun, says Michael. "It's like what would kids nowadays be doing? And that's exactly what would happen."

In the tradition of The Exorcist and other possession movies like The Evil Dead and Hereditary, Talk to Me is also rife with gut-churning sequences—courtesy of some gruesome practical effects enhanced with CGI—that have the potential to test the sensibilities of even seasoned horror fans. But the Philippous say they don't want their gore to be over the top. While editing the movie, they cut one David Cronenberg-esque scene that plays a pivotal role in the movie's climax down to 15 seconds, from its original two-minutes-and-30-seconds runtime, realizing it was getting to "feel a bit too splatter," Danny says. "We've always wanted our horror to be rooted in character and not feel like we're being gratuitous for gratuity's sake. We want there to be meaning behind all of it."

Ultimately, amid all the ghosts and gore, Talk to Me is a meditation on the ways that grief can change and consume us. But unfortunately for Mia, the lesson comes at a high price.

"There are steps that Mia can take from the very beginning to go down a different path, but she buries herself deeper instead," Danny says. "I really empathize with the character and understand, but there are clear choices [that would lead to] a different outcome and she doesn't make them. It's tragic."

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com