Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
A woman with her two daughters in the 1960's perform fake seances to make ends meet but discover that their tricks aren't all make believe when a Ouija Board opens their home to an angry dark presence. A prequel to Ouija (2014)
10/21/16 US Theatrical
Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard
Annalise Basso as Lina Zander
Elizabeth Reaser as Alice Zander
Lulu Wilson as Doris Zander
Henry Thomas as Father Tom
Doug Jones as Ghoul
Ouija: Origin of Evil is a vastly superior prequel to the forgettable Ouija. Mike Flanagan, director of Hush and Oculus proves to be one of the most dependable emerging talents in horror with another solid and very entertaining slice of horror. While probably his safest and most formulaic film to date it’s clear that Flanagan, along with co-writer Jeff Howard, just have a great sense of what makes good horror work.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is a prequel to the first film taking us back to 1964 and, as the title suggests, tells us how we arrive at the events of Ouija. Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser – Twilight) is a single mother raising two daughters, the teenage Lina (Annalise Basso – Oculus) and 9 year old Doris (Lulu Wilson). Alice makes ends meet by performing readings and seances as a medium though it is quickly revealed that she is a fake. Lina and Doris help her pull off elaborate tricks to convince customers they are talking with their loved ones, the kids are told they are helping these people find peace through lying to them. Unfortunately these tricks are not enough to pay the bills and this family, having lost the husband/father of the household due to a drunk driving accident, may lose their beautiful home. This is the same house where most of the events of the original Ouija take place and things take a turn for the strange when Alice is told by Lina that she should add a Ouija Board to their act.
The board comes with three three simple rules: 1. Don’t play along 2. Don’t play in a graveyard and 3. Always say goodbye. Alice makes changes to the board so she can use magnets to move the planchette. What she does not realize is that bringing this board into her home she might very well have just given a voice to an evil force that dwells there. Young Doris, who does not truly understand that her father is dead and still talks to him every night, seems profoundly affected by the use of the board. Beginning to use it by herself Doris believes she is talking to her father and Alice starts to believe the superstitions she has exploited as part of her act as a medium might actually be real. However the more interactions that are had with the board the more Doris starts to change and with it a dark force seems to descend upon the house.
The original Ouija was a rather bland, very by-the-books horror film based around Hasbro’s Ouija Board game. It tells a very well worn story of young people meddling with something that they did not understand, opening themselves up to evil spirits. The film was hobbled from the start with an inexperienced cast and creative forces whose greatest claims to fame were movies like Boogeyman and The Possession. The film also experienced extensive reshoots which added a character and greatly changed a lot of the backstory. Unfortunately a lot of big studio horror films are treated this way, the genre seen as a way to make money on a low budget but without worrying about whether the product itself will actually be good. They put people in charge who do not have proven records in being able to deliver. The end result being lots of really mediocre horror aimed at a less discerning largely teen audience which does not represent horror fandom much if at all. Ouija was mostly panned but it also made a lot of money based on its very modest $5 million budget so a sequel was inevitable but it is encouraging to see that proven horror creators were put in control this time. Are the big studios figuring out that talented horror directors and writers are worth seeking out rather than just hiring the same hacks to put out drab, middle of the road junk that we’ll all have forgotten about right after it’s over?
On the surface Ouija: Origin of Evil with its generic title and similar story setup make it seem like more of the same. Thankfully with the creative team of Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard on board they are able to make a very effective chiller out of these very formulaic components. How they do this is by giving us characters to care about with actors up to the task of bringing those characters to life, and very effective use of visual gags and tricks to up the tension and build the scares. After a film that seemed doomed from the start it is gratifying to see a major studio acknowledge the talent of dedicated horror filmmakers and the film benefits hugely for it. Also from Oculus is Annalise Basso as Lina Zander who showed great talent for her age back in 2013 for that film and certainly brings it here also. Elizabeth Reaser is also fantastic as the mother Alice, having to hold back the pain and grief of losing her husband while keeping things together in order to support her family. Reaser brings warmth and believability to the role while also abley showing the desperation of providing for her children that leads her down a dark path. Little Lulu Wilson as Doris, however, is quite outstanding. You never know what you’re going to get with child actors but Wilson, with her enormous round eyes and cherubic face, is precocious and smart and up to the challenges of her role in the film. This family unit meshes extremely well together which was vitally important to the story working, you feel for these people and want them to be okay.
While Ouija: Origin of Evil is not going to win any awards for originality it also wins thanks to excellent execution. Avoiding having random silly fake scares this film builds the mood and builds the encroaching darkness that makes the scary stuff more impactful and rewarding. In this way it reminds me of Flanagan’s breakout feature Absentia where things lurk on the edges before insidiously moving more and more into frame. As the evil grows in power there is really effective use of CGI to make things extra creepy without it looking cheesy. There are also some neat nods to the 60’s setting of the film with a very old-fashioned opening title card along with the warm and colorful visuals. There are also occasional film scratches and occasional “cigarette burns” in the top corner as if it were on a series of reels that the projectionist had already used before. It’s creative little nods that add some charm to the otherwise overly familiar story. In fact if you liked Ouija you will probably love all of the callbacks to the original’s mythology and make sure you stay through the end credits. Having said that, this film is still very dependent on genre cliches from the likes of Poltergeist and The Exorcist, especially in the third act where things become extremely predictable. It’s just so well made that these issues aren’t as prominent as they were with the original.
Ouija: Origin of Evil doesn’t reinvent the wheel but is a fun, really solid bit of effective horror that works so well it actually makes the original Ouija better. With Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard allowed to work their magic that worked so well with the likes of Absentia and Oculus they have succeeded in making a follow-up so much better than Ouija actually deserves. While still not as good as some of Summer 2016’s horror output this is one of the best times you can have at the movies in the run up to Halloween.