IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 94 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Friends Laine and Debbie enjoy playing around with an Ouija board when they are very young. As teenagers, they are still friends but Debbie still continues to use the board before deciding enough is enough and throwing it into a fire……only for it to reappear and not seem burnt in the slightest. Driven to seeming madness, Debbie commits suicide by hanging. As she killed herself at home, her family is unwilling to stay in the house and leave Laine to house-sit for the time being. Laine and four of her other friends decide that they will try to contact Debbie’s spirit via a Ouija board that she has discovered, unaware that it’s the same one that may have caused Debbie’s death….
Us horror fans can be a fussy lot. We all want our favourite genre to top the box office as often as it can, but quite often we tend to complain when a horror film we consider to be quite poor is doing good business. This very website was partly built on my co-writers Matt Wavish and Ross Hughes feeling the need to champion and spread the word about all these neglected gems which they felt didn’t get the releases and audiences they deserved. Browse the IMDB board for Ouija and you’ll find it to be full of folk annoyed that such a supposedly lame horror film is bringing in the crowds, and some people are even saying it’s not worthy of the genre and not a true horror movie at all….and to that I say:”You’re wrong”. Ouija is about as generic and ‘safe’ as a modern horror film can get, and is indeed largely built around jump scares as many have said, but is actually quite well done at times. Watching it, I got myself into that frame of mind which makes me more susceptible to getting scared, and the film achieved in places what I wanted it to. I have little doubt that I’ll forget much of it in a few days time, unlike The Babadook which, while it didn’t terrify me in the way it seems to have many others, still lurks in my mind because it was so uncomfortable and disturbing. And it certainly worked better for me than Anabelle which, despite me finding dolls incredibly creepy, resolutely failed to chill except for one sequence [that darned lift that kept stopping at the same floor!].
I guess that much of this is down to expectation. I expected Ouija to be a load of rubbish and to have fun ripping it apart in my review, but was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t an ordeal to sit through and sometimes did it’s job. This is despite it being co-produced by the dreaded Platinum Dunes and it being supposedly based on Hasbro’s board game. In fact, it was originally going to be a pretty big budget affair and went through quite a few screenwriters and directors before Juliet Snowdon and Stiles White, who wrote the middling The Possession and, more notably, the terrific Knowing, came on board to write and, in White’s case, direct. The end result is certainly nothing special and I’m not going to make claims for it to be some neglected modern classic, but I don’t see what’s terribly wrong about a film that provides some fun and lots of mostly cheap but effective scares for an hour and a half even if it makes no lasting impression. It certainly shows that White has considerable talent as a horror filmmaker, being good at building tension, timing frights well and prefering to let the camera slowly glide around the main house setting rather than shaking it all about and cutting scenes to within an inch of their life – in fact much of the film has a nice old-school feel about it. He just needs a good script so he can show what he can really do, and, in a film where most of the performances are reasonable, there’s one thing that truly lets it down.
This is, of course, the script, a lazy affair which seems entirely built on other horror films. I know that the horror genre tends to feed to itself like an especially hungry zombie, but honestly, I was seeing traces of Insidious, Paranormal Activity, The Ring, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Woman In Black and about ten others so quickly that Ouija sometimes struggles to have a life of its own. A ghost even makes that horrid shrieking sound heard in The Descent, The Lord Of The Rings, and many others. Nonetheless the opening scene nicely sets the mood and even holds off on us showing us much. Instead, it’s content to slowly build, using that gliding camera and even some creative lighting [cinematographer David Emmerichs does a fine job throughout the film], to the death of Debbie which sets in motion the main part of the story. Of course we are then introduced to the teenage protagonists and they’re not a bad lot, combining a nice scepticism with a bit of bravado, though they don’t seem to be scared enough when things get scary, and things get scary very quickly in a film which was obviously made for those with short attention spans. It really is one jump scare after another at times, and some of them rely too much on a loud musical sting to make the viewer jump, though James Wan and many others also do this too much so one should hardly criticise White for taking the easy option and doing it. The story does slow down briefly for some exposition featuring Lin Shaye in a memorably sinister role, but only briefly, and just when you think the climax is a considerable disappointment, along comes another which is rather better, though a supposed final sting is so half-hearted it’s a wonder why they even bothered.
One can detect a struggle in Ouija between the need to make a horror film for supposed Attention Deficit Disorder-suffering teens who apparently require a jolt every few minutes otherwise they’ll start fiddling around on their phones, and a desire to make a more traditional, better-paced affair. It’s the former that wins out, but if you accept what most of the film consists of, it’s quite well done. Too much of something can result in that something becoming less effective, and it certainly applies to the constant rehashing of Ouija’s main device, but there are some moments, not all of which use that damn musical sting, which do work a treat. The perhaps excessive mileage derived from the Ouija board’s planchette does result in some nervous tension and one superbly executed fright when the person looking through the glass surveys the others and sees two ghosts amongst them. There’s also great use of the device where you see something before anybody else does and feel like shouting: “He’s behind you” while still getting the odd chill down the spine. An outline in a mirror is a truly spooky moment. Unfortunately, as with some other things, this is done a bit too often, but occasionally a proper creepy atmosphere does appear, such as an eerie encounter with a shopping trolley in a darkened tunnel which sounds ridiculous and weak, but really is very well executed indeed.
Unlike some other ‘PG-13’ horror films which don’t feel restricted by said rating, Ouija does seem constrained by it. It seems to want to show us some nasty stuff, then back away. This is most evident in an amusingly inept death scene when someone is seen to smash their face on a sink but said face looks okay when the person hits the floor dead and the blood seems to pour out from the back of her head. The sight of a person with her mouth sowed shut is quite disturbing at first, but after a while it ceases to be so and it becomes apparent that the film doesn’t have any more ideas up its sleeve. And that script just lets the side down constantly. The characters feel fairly real and believable due to solid performances, but their actions are ridiculous [granted, this is in a genre where folk often behave like idiots and even sometimes have to] and some of the dialogue they are given is laughably bad, such as the hugely awkward and unconvincing scene introducing the relationship between Laine and her sister. Stuff like this is a great shame because Olivia Cooke, British-born but doing an excellent American accent, is one of the most likeable leads in a film like this in some time.
Anton Sanko’s score sometimes works overtime and the film certainly wouldn’t work as well as it does without it. Ouija is nothing special, repeats itself too much [I mean how many times do we need to see a close-up of an eye looking through the planchette window?], and seems hamstrung by its desire to go for the easy option every time, while if you want to see a good film about Ouija boards you’ll much better off checking out the British Long Time Dead or even the 80’s flick Witchboard. Nonetheless it really isn’t as bad as all that and sometimes works well within its limits. Though I’m personally still annoyed that the terrific animated movie The Book Of Life has been a bit of a flop, I don’t really have a problem with Ouija’s box office success. It just about manages to do what it set out to do, at least in parts, and many films don’t even do that. But if we get a sequel, please, let’s have some creativity and faith in an audience’s patience.