Film Review – Ouija
Oujia (2014) is a horror movie that showcases the worst aspects of the genre. Like any other film, what makes a good scary movie is not the creepy images or the screams or the amount of blood splattered. It’s about interesting characters, a captivating story, and plot developments that throw us for a loop. Creativity and ambition is what really leaves an impact on an audience, regardless of what genre you’re working in. Ouija does not have this. In fact, it settles for the bare minimum. It doesn’t take any chances, it follows a routine, and with the dreaded PG-13 rating, it’s not scary. At best it operates as time filler. At its worst, it acts as a feature-length commercial, targeted to teens in hopes they’ll go to the local toy store and buy the board game.
There’s nothing wrong with making a movie based on a toy or game. Sometimes there’ll be a miss (I’m looking at you, Battleship), but occasionally you’ll come across something like The Lego Movie (2014). I don’t think anyone will argue that it was a toy commercial as well, but it’s also an impressive and heartfelt effort, and one of the better outings of the year. What’s the difference between The Lego Movie and Ouija? Ouija doesn’t believe it can better than what it is. It doesn’t think outside the box; it goes for the safe and well-traveled path.
Directed by Stiles White (who co-wrote the screenplay with Juliet Snowden), the story follows a familiar arc. After her closest friend Debbie (Shelley Henning) passes away, Laine (Olivia Cooke) decides to investigate the circumstances of her death. As the title suggests, Laine focuses in on the mysterious Ouija board found in Debbie’s home. How do you think Laine goes about her investigation? Does she go to the police? Of course not. Along with her friends (Ana Coto, Daren Kagsoff, Bianca A. Santos, Douglas Smith), Laine does the one thing audience members will be telling her not to: using the Ouija board to open a connection between their world and the realm of the dead. Here’s a piece of advice: if your friend asks you to play with a Ouija board to solve their buddy’s death, consider finding new friends.
The plot is thin. Pacing issues cause the first act to drag considerably. This section is mostly filled with lights flickering, stoves turning on, and tons of fake-out scares. By the time things start rolling, we’re already well into the third act. What’s disappointing is how everything is presented in a clichéd manner. There’s the central mystery, appearances of spooky imagery, a little kid running around in unexpected places – you know, the usual stuff. The film checks off each familiar trope one by one. In the most egregious act, a Spanish maid (Vivis Colombetti) is inserted to help explain the weird goings on. It’s convenient that a person of color – who had no other function in the story – also happens to have all the answers when needed. The “Ethnic Maid Who Knows Everything That Is Spiritual” is a stereotype, a bad one, and the fact it’s still being used in 2014 is disheartening.
I’m not one to bag on actors and actresses still trying to make a name for themselves. What I’ll say here is the performances leave much to be desired. Of the main cast, none made a significant impression. The main culprit is in the writing and direction. Characters are drawn with little distinction; they are written only as types. We don’t get a sense of who they are outside of the clothes they wear. When crap hits the fan, we don’t care what happens to them because we don’t know who they are. Even Laine, who we are supposed to be rooting for, does not have much going for her. Olivia Cooke plays the role often with a blank stare, maybe because there wasn’t much there to work with. The one person who does leave a mark is Lin Shaye, playing a character I will not describe. Shaye is a veteran actress and shows it, hamming up her gestures with wicked glee. It’s too bad everyone else didn’t follow suit.
There isn’t a single surprising scare. Jump scares are plenty, but the effect disappears quickly. This is coming from a person who was terrified of Ouija boards as a child. I was so frightened of them that whenever someone pulled the game out of their closet, I had to leave the room. If Oujia can’t bring those feelings back, either it didn’t do its job or I’ve turned into an emotionless robot (take your pick). There are a ton of horror movies out there, from every country using every kind of budget. The sheer abundance of them makes standing out a challenge. The sad thing is: despite clearly having the ability, this did nothing to separate itself from the pack.