Film Review – Ouija: Origin of Evil
Ouija: Origin of Evil
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) is set up as a prequel to Ouija (2014). Instead of taking place in the present day we travel back to the 1960s, although the house featured is the same one from the first film. Why a prequel instead of a standard sequel? My first guess is because Ouija was terrible, completely devoid of any scares or thrills. Also the time period is set this way to milk off the success of The Conjuring series, which was based roughly around the same era (1960s-1970s). The costumes and set design look like leftovers from Mad Men, from the uncomfortable chic couches to the big bulky automobiles riding along the streets.
In essence, Ouija: Origin of Evil feels a lot like other better horror films, particularly The Exorcist (1973). Writer/director Mike Flanagan translates specific visual and thematic motifs here: we have a mother dealing with a supernatural presence invading the body of her young daughter. Sound familiar, right? Heck, this priest – Father Tom (Henry Thomas) – looks quite a bit like Jason Miller’s Father Karras from The Exorcist. There are the weird voices coming out of our dearly possessed, as well as the classic “crawling up the walls” scare scenes. All we need is some pea soup to top it off. They say that if you’re going to borrow from others, you might as well borrow from the best. Flanagan clearly knows where to take his inspiration from.
But to simply call out “rip off” would be selling him short. This is a much better movie than Ouija – in story and execution. While the scare scenes are nothing we haven’t seen before, and never really gets all that scary (the dreaded PG-13 rating is proof of that) Flanagan and his writing partner (Jeff Howard) put just enough care into the material to make it stronger than it has any right to be. There’s an added focus on character and emotion that draws us in and makes us curious to see where they end up. We deal with themes of loss and family connection. In fact, there might be a better argument for this as a family drama instead of straight out horror, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is a single mother to Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). Struggling with the recent loss of her husband, Alice makes ends meet by running a con as a fortune teller/spiritual medium, milking on innocent people who only want to speak to their departed loved ones. Paulina and Doris help out, hiding in the corner with contraptions that’ll blow the candles out or move the center table at the exact right moment. Alice’s justification for this is not cruel; she believes she’s helping these people get closure after a painful loss just as she experienced. And if she gets paid for it, well, who is she to deny their generosity? Things take a dangerous turn when – at the suggestion of Paulina – Alice decides to purchase a Ouija board to incorporate into their act. Things get deathly serious when the Ouija board unlocks a mysterious gateway for unknown powers to travel through, some of which take a specific interest in Doris.
I could go into more detail over the plot, but what’s the fun in that? Flanagan’s strength is developing these characters enough to make us care about them, especially with Alice and Paulina. Elizabeth Reaser plays Alice with a strong façade but vulnerable underneath. She’s clearly not yet over her dead husband, and her act is possibly her way of working through her depression. Paulina is depicted as a perfectly regular teenage girl – full of anxiety, self-consciousness, and a budding sexuality. Her awkward romantic flirtations with high school boy Mikey (Parker Mack) feels natural and authentic. Unlike most horror movie stereotypes, Alice and Paulina work together through dialogue. They freely express what they think and their frustrations with the supernatural developments happening in their home. They’re smart and able people, willing to work things out logically instead of just screaming at the top of their lungs.
A lot of credit should go to little Lulu Wilson. A lot of the terror is anchored to the quality of her performance, and Flanagan directs a strong one out of her. Sure, there’s the help of computer-generated effects, particularly when Doris is called to express a demonic face (why are people with large open mouths considered scary?). But it’s the quieter scenes that got to me, the ones where Wilson is allowed to bring the creepiness through her skill set. Sometimes seeing her eyes peer over the top of a couch is good enough to make our skin crawl. One her best scenes is when she describes the act of being strangled to high school boy Mikey, and his stunned reaction is justifiably hilarious.
The little unnerving moments are when Flanagan is really working his magic. When he goes for the bigger scares is when he starts receding into clichéd territory. Jump scares and fake out moments are so routine that we can almost detect when they’re coming and what form they’ll take. It’s the cheapest way to startle an audience. This might sound like a broken record, but it’s true. How many times have we seen a character frightened by a loud noise only to discover a cute little kitten? If we were in a horror movie right now, would you ever want to look at a mirror? That’s what makes Ouija: Origin of Evil a passable, albeit unmemorable horror experience. Flanagan put thought and energy into making this more character oriented, but the requirements of appealing to a large audience hinders him from really getting down and dirty. As a viewing option for the Halloween season you could do worse, but you could also do better.