Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

22 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I didn’t write a full review of 2014’s “Ouija,” because it can be summed up very quickly. It’s lame, dumb, badly-written, and contains a nonsensical twist that makes it worse. Dumb, bland teens play with a Ouija board, bad things happen, they get picked off one by one by a malevolent spirit. You’d think these idiots would’ve seen the “Paranormal Activity” movies to learn not to mess with things they don’t understand. It’s a boring movie with very little to it, other than…the filmmakers wanted to see if they could make a movie about playing a supernatural board game. (Unless it’s Jumanji or Zathura, I don’t care much.)

Side-note: Yes, I know people are terrified of the Ouija board game, but if it was a real hazard to everyone, do you think they would’ve kept it stocked in toy stores all these years? Besides, according to renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, it’s not the board game itself that lets in demons; it’s you inviting them in. (You could basically do the same thing with Checkers pieces or a Twister dial, or, if you saw “The Conjuring,” a music box or a doll.) The Ouija board is just a toy. But due to the spiritualistic elements surrounding it, it’s easy for filmmakers & storytellers to try and use Ouija for purposes usually relating to horror elements, which leads us to…

Even though “Ouija” was universally panned by critics, it made a bundle at the box office, leading to the studio getting a half-baked idea that it might warrant a sequel. I have no idea what the planning process was like, but I like to think that studio executives, as well as producer Michael Bay (yes, THAT Michael Bay, whose track record with the horror films he produces is very off-putting), knew there was nowhere for this “franchise” to go but up, and so maybe they knew they had to make this new one as good as possible. Who’s a good director who knows how to make horror movies? Who can take what little the original film had to begin with and make something gripping and scary out of it?

Mike Flanagan is the one they chose to take Ouija in a new direction. His previous horror films include the underrated chiller “Oculus” and my favorite horror film of 2016 by far, “Hush,” so I’d say that was a very good choice. And if you saw my Verdict rating above, you know I think Flanagan did a very good job with “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” a prequel to the 2014 film. I was surprised by how smart and how genuinely chilling this movie is, especially considering its deplorable predecessor.

Set in 1967 (47 years before the other film), “Ouija: Origin of Evil” focuses on one family (as opposed to a group of stock dead-meat teen characters in the first film). California medium Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is a widowed mother to rebellious 15-year-old Lina (Annalise Basso) and adorable 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson), all of whom are adjusting to life after the sudden death of her husband/their father. Alice hosts séances at home for clients, and her daughters help make the illusion more practical. But they mean well; Alice assures her children that they’re not scammers and they do it to help people, even if their methods are showy. But they themselves would appreciate a real way of connecting to the afterlife.

Alice buys a Ouija board game (property and trademark of Hasbro, whom I hope has a sense of humor in allowing their product associated with grisliness) and rigs it for use at séances. But when Doris begins playing with it, the family discovers to their amazement that they can really communicate with authentic spirits, including the man they lost.

This is a very intriguing premise so far, as we see people using phony methods of connecting with spirits and are bewildered by the discovery of something more real than they expected. But it’s not fun for long, as Doris is in contact with spirits who are much less than friendly. Soon, she is possessed by a black-skinned demon (Doug Jones…of course, Doug Jones). Alice is still blinded by the amazement she feels for the whole ordeal, but Lina is suspicious and seeks help from priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas), who discovers there is far more sinister going on with poor little Doris than Lina or Alice ever expected.

Flanagan has fun with the ‘60s setting, littering the film with retro callbacks, such as space-program references, retro fragments such as the roman numerals (of the date) at the bottom of the title card, the classic Universal logo that opens the film, and even inserting little black blips at the top-right of the screen to make it appear as if it was projected on film. With the exception of an obvious CGI figure that (thankfully) only pops up about 2-3 times, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” looks and feels like a film that was made and released in the late-‘60s. But Flanagan also knows how to use scares effectively. He uses jump-scares scarcely (I think the first fake-out scare was intended to be funny rather than annoying, thank goodness), he eases people in with tension and a creepy feeling without overloading the buildup with falseness (a problem most horror movies face today), and then, in the overbearing climax, that’s when he pulls out all the stops. That’s what a good horror film is supposed to do: ease the audience into its weirdness/creepiness and let it all out when the time is right, by which point the audience is very much on-edge.

But wait, you may ask. How is it scary? Flanagan uses creepy visuals, even out of focus in the background. He shows horrific things happening. And like I said, he uses false jump scares scarcely—when there are real jump scares, there’s actually something to be scared of. (I know, a shocking concept, right?) And overall, it’s creepy. It leaves you with the knowledge that there are dangerous forces at work and are playing with Doris’ mind and haunting Alice and Lina’s lives, and it builds its suspense from there. The climax is a little overbearing, with everything becoming a threat around every corner of this house (including a creepy basement and a hidden room), but it deserves to be by that point.

But a horror movie wouldn’t be nearly as effective if we didn’t care about the characters this stuff is happening to. Flanagan manages a win with this as well, picking three very good actresses (Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, and Lulu Wilson) who successfully deliver a family dynamic and play people we care about and fear for. Henry Thomas is also solid as well, playing a man of God who is also looking for otherworldly answers ever since his wife died.

It’s important to note that no one needs to see the 2014 “Ouija” film before seeing this “prequel.” This works perfectly well as a stand-alone story, and its predecessor needs no more attention than it already got. “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is much better than it deserves to be. Not that I would want another “Ouija” movie to come from this—I mean, after all, just like there was nowhere for the franchise to go but up, this franchise seems like it can only go downward from here.

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