Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Ouija (2014)

Ouija (2014)

Rated PG-13 for disturbing horror content, frightening images, and thematic material

Ouija is a better movie I predicted it was going to be. That is, it's not a completely wretched excuse for a horror film like Annabelle was, but it's nowhere near quality. The dialogue is terrible, most of the scares are lame, and it must be mentioned that it's based on a board game, but its single greatest problem is that it's got two plots that run at the same time, and their competition for the film's attention ultimately leaves both of them underdeveloped and making little sense. It does admittedly pack some cool special effects for the ghosts, the occasional good fright, and a solid cast of young attractive folks (plus the great horror veteran Lin Shaye) who do their best to give some dignity to the material, but it's little more than B-movie thrills of the cheapest kind.

You know, for a film that has Hasbro's name on it (they own the rights to the titular board and helped produce the film), it's weird how it's seemingly dedicated to making all possible viewers never want to touch a Ouija board. Nothing but bad things happen to everybody who plays around with the thing. First, one girl, Debbie, violates the first rule of using it (never play alone), and gets possessed and made to kill herself as a result. Then, the girl's sisters Laine (played by Olivia Cooke) and Sarah, plus their friends/cannon fodder Trevor, Isabelle, and Pete, try to contact Debbie using the board, only to inadvertently break the second rule (never play in a graveyard) when they find out too late that one of the house's previous owners, who had been a medium in the '40s and '50s, killed her daughter and bricked up her remains in the basement -- and that the spirits of both the girl and her evil mother contacted Debbie before she killed herself. Now, they must turn to the surviving daughter Paulina (Lin Shaye), who's currently locked up in a psychiatric hospital, for help in putting away the evil mother for good. Of course, it turns out that (spoiler alert) the daughter was the real evil one; her mother had used her in life to help speak to the dead, which had messed with her brain quite a bit, and Paulina was helping her the whole time hoping to free her. So now they're all screwed... until Debbie's ghost shows up out of nowhere to save the day for her sisters after the cannon fodder all bite it.

Yeah, the writing ain't this one's strongest suit. Between the first twenty minutes and the last ten, almost no time is given to the story of Debbie, despite her death having opened the film. We instead spend much of the middle hour of the film learning about the mother and daughter who'd been awakened by the Ouija board, and watching them haunt and occasionally kill our main characters. Laine and Sarah show almost no angst over the fact that their sister just killed herself, and that's through no fault of their actresses (who did a decent job otherwise) -- the writing just does not give them the opportunity. Likewise, one hour is not enough time to tell a feature-length story from beginning to end, and while the twist of the daughter being evil instead of the mother was a nice touch, the story otherwise felt rushed, like an excuse to get to the scares. Characters like the nanny feel like they originally had larger roles that were cut to bring the runtime down to the magical ninety minutes; ditto for the hints of a complicated relationship between the sisters, which never add up to anything. (And do I need to mention the deus ex machina ending again?) It's like the second half of Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween, which ran at breakneck speed through the events of the original film and suffered for it. Watching the middle parts of Ouija, I felt like I was watching a version of Poltergeist or The Conjuring that fast-forwarded through two-thirds of the character development. It had the seeds of two interesting stories, but instead of devoting its time and energy to growing one of them, it instead let both of them wilt.

Since the writing for this film is pretty dire, that leaves us with the scares and the kills, and to be honest, for a PG-13 film they're better than they could've been. Granted, that's pretty much a backhanded way of saying "at least they're not terrible," but it's still more creativity than in the dreadful Nightmare on Elm Street remake I watched a couple of days ago. (And that was rated R!) Sewing someone's mouth shut with dental floss, or using a pool cover to drown a poor schmuck, is pretty much the most I was hoping for given the rating and the overall "horror-lite" tone of the film. Likewise for the non-lethal jump scares. This film sucks at really building tension for longer than five seconds, but on occasion, the scares do actually work. The shadow attack in particular had me constantly looking over the kids' shoulders into the dark for the next couple of minutes. And when the ghosts showed up, I loved the decaying makeup effects on them.

Score: 2 out of 5

The highest praise I can give this is that it's better than I feared it would be. Still, it's not something I'd recommend when there are so many superior supernatural horror films out there. Save your money and rent one of those.

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