OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL
Directed by Mike Flanagan
In our early teens, my buddies and I made Ouija boards out of paper and stayed up ‘til the early hours thinking we were nattering away to ‘the dead’. Being older and wiser I see it for what it was: a trick fuelled by small unconscious movements or unashamed pushing. Notably, the spirit world disproportionately favoured one of us: Phil, who’d allegedly been endowed with a great future, intellectual traits the rest of us didn’t see and huge genitals. Ouija: Origin of Evil, the prequel to the remarkably unremarkable Ouija, evades the potential ambiguity of someone pushing the pointer by quickly showing it move on its own violation. This is much to the amazement of Alice Zander (Reaser): a fraudulent medium in 1967.
She doesn’t think of herself as fraud of course – instead it’s about offering “closure”. With her two daughters, teenager Paulina (Basso) and little Doris (Wilson), the first class opener sees her use a range of theatrics to try and ‘help’ a couple say goodbye. However, she has closure issues of her own, with the recent death of her husband having left her both lonely and struggling to make ends meet. Fortunately assistance arrives in the form of an Ouija board, that her youngest appears to have a natural affinity with. Before long Doris seems to speak to her dad, and then shortly after anyone else she wants to: something that legitimises their illegitimate business. But is it really good spirits she’s talking to? After a frustratingly long time, Paulina helps Alice realise it’s probably not so simple and, with the help of sort-of love interest Father Tom (Thomas), the trio fight to save Doris’ soul from the clutches of darkness etc etc.
Saying this is an improvement on the original maybe doesn’t mean much, since even Battleship was a better board game to movie adaptation. Yet it’s extremely rare for a sequel/ prequel to trump its source material this much! Not only have the creative team done this, they’ve also made Ouija into a potentially credible franchise (though viewers potential note this entry maybe functions better as a stand-alone given that the original reveals the ending). Its success is mostly down to two key factors. First up is the cast, who are genuinely excellent in their roles. The small scale of the story lets each shine, though Wilson is the clear stand out. What’s so chilling about her performance as Doris is she’s never not playing her as a child. Even when there’s bodies dropping, people talking through her and she’s describing being choked to death, Wilson never betrays her smiley angelic appearance. She also never puts on a ‘creepy’ voice either (though there’s audio tomfoolery throughout), relying more on a mismatch between who she is and what she does than being scary per se.
This second big thing in its favour is the appointment of Mike Flanagan as director. With Absentia, Oculus and Hush, he’s already shown himself to be one of the more exciting voices in modern horror. Here he takes his first stab at the mainstream, and does a strong job without compromising his artistic integrity. Scenes are expertly composed, with bold visuals, beautiful symmetry and wonderful makeup/ effects. There are also some genuinely horrific moments scattered throughout, mostly in the third act, and the movie relies on cheap jumps much less than its predecessor. Aside from one scene, that blatantly apes Insidious, the imagery is unsettling and reasonably free of cliché. Many of the still shots are held longer than usual too, which really drums in the suspense. The 60s setting is also excellently brought to life, from the detailed sets and great soundtrack down to cigarette burns in the screen corner. In short, Ouija: Origin of Evil really is a technical achievement.
Sadly, as often the case with studio horror, the script has less polish than the visuals: there’s a real “this’ll do” feel about it. Sure, there are cool subversions. But the first two acts still feel a lot like a haunted kid box ticking exercise: Doris nonchalantly speaks to imaginary friends, does weird things with paper and appears from nowhere. Furthermore, when the mythology finally gets developed you’ll wish it hadn’t – the evil force’s explanation feels very lazy. And then there’s the characters. It’s refreshing to see an ethically dubious protagonist, who’s more than happy to mislead punters with trickery. Yet it stretches credibility with how readily she and Paulina carry on with their lives, as if there were no obvious source of danger in their home, undermining the family values message. By the end of act 1 it ought to be clear there’s something wrong with Doris. Yet Alice, in particular, willingly ignores the signs. All of this could maybe have been excused if a little more had been made of the financial woes, but they are written out very early. This means the core of the story becomes in equal parts hubris and letting go, though neither theme is given much emotional weight or development. There’s also a confusion as to whose story this really is: is it about the love between a mother and her daughters, two sisters or their shared bereavement? The movie never decides and likely neither will viewers as the second half eventually becomes a series of bad things happening without much behind them. Consequently the ending, which really pushes the parameters of a 12A, is only made effective by its darkness rather than how well it resolves anything.
Much of this maybe sounds harsh, as I appreciate I’m far from the target audience. Whereas this is a film I could genuinely see being prime sleepover fodder for younger fans, or a decent date occasional scary movie viewers, liking a lot. It’s just unnerving enough to prompt hiding behind the sofa but likely won’t disturb anyone too much after. Yet for purists it offers an enjoyable enough 90 minutes that’ll probably be much forgotten on the way home. I don’t know if The Conjuring 2 has simply ruined haunted house movies for me this year, by being notably better than its competitors. But I don’t know that I’d recommend genre enthusiasts parting with money for Ouija: Origin of Evil. That being said, if you got a son/ daughter or younger brother/ sister that’s starting out on these kind of movies then treat them to a cinema trip. There’s a lot about it that’ll scare them senseless, and as such it may even be close to this generation’s version of Poltergeist in delivering fast-paced family friendly shocks well. And besides, it’s much more fun than the real thing.