Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements
Score: 4 out of 5
I'm shocked. Seriously, I'm shocked that this film was as good as it was. The 2014 horror film Ouija, to put it bluntly, kinda sucked. I didn't find it to be as irredeemable as others thought it was, but it was still an uninspired cash-in on a brand name weighed down by rote scares, forgettable characters, lousy dialogue, and a plot that can barely even be called undercooked, as that would imply that any preparation or thought went into it whatsoever. It was a film that had absolutely no reason to exist, and while something like, say, The Purge at least had a good idea underneath its poor execution (which its sequels explored more successfully), Ouija was the definition of the sort of shoddily-made, toothless, ho-hum movie that gives modern supernatural horror films a bad name. Any hope I had that the recruitment of Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, the makers of the highly impressive Oculus, would produce a superior prequel dissipated when the trailer, despite its cool retro-period setting reminiscent of The Conjuring, instead seemed to provide just more of the same. So imagine my surprise last week when the first reviews for this film came in showering it with praise, such that it currently holds an 80% Certified Fresh Tomatometer. Given that there would be at least some improvement over the original, I figured, what the hell, it's almost Halloween, might as well give it a shot.
And what I got was a damn fine horror movie. Flanagan and Howard did the impossible: they made the movie that the first one should've been despite being saddled with its baggage in terms of being a prequel to that film. They demonstrated that Oculus wasn't a fluke, combining a gorgeous and authentic-feeling '60s aesthetic with great characters and serious scares. Some of the acting could've been better, but otherwise, this is still an incredibly good film and a very pleasant surprise in a year at the movies that, at this point, desperately needs them. As of now, whenever anybody says "well, it was based on a toy/theme park ride/ad campaign, so you shouldn't expect a masterpiece!" to try and excuse a bad movie, I'm just gonna point them to this. (And The Lego Movie. And the first two Pirates of the Caribbean films.)
This film is an origin story for the ghosts who haunted the protagonists of the first Ouija. Set in 1967, our main characters are the Zander family, consisting of the widowed mother Alice and her two daughters, the teenaged Paulina, or "Lina" for short, and the nine-year-old Doris. Alice works from home as a medium, leading seances with her customers while her daughters help with special effects trickery behind the scenes. With the business in a rut, customers growing increasingly skeptical, and the family falling behind on bills, Alice decides to buy a Ouija board in order to spice up the routine at the suggestion of Lina, who had used one with her friends the night before. Alice, experimenting with the board and rigging the planchette with magnets for her business, inadvertently wakes a spirit that inhabits the house, who starts to communicate with Doris once she interacts with the board. Initially, both Alice and Doris think that the entity she's talking to is the spirit of Alice's deceased husband Roger, but Lina suspects that her sister has made contact with something else entirely, knowing the tricks of the trade of being a phony psychic and concluding that the spirit may well be merely posing as her father. As strange occurrences start to pile up, Lina enlists the help of Father Joe Hogan, the principal of the Catholic school she and Doris attend, as they set out to convince Alice that there is a malevolent force possessing Doris -- and hopefully save her and the entire family from its power.
Flanagan's direction here is worlds ahead of his uninspired predecessor. He fully commits to the setting, baking the '60s into every frame with the fashions, the cars, the music, and the hair, without trying to scream it into the viewer's face what year the film is set in. He even used the classic Universal logo and an old-fashioned title card in the opening, and the rest of the film is made to look like vintage film stock, between how the colors look and the bits of noticeable yet never overbearing film grain. CGI was there with some of the shots, most notably when Doris' jaw hinges unnaturally wide, but I was able to forgive the use of modern special effects for the more supernatural occurrences given how authentic everything else felt. That includes the scares and the atmosphere, by the way. Whereas the PG-13 rating in the original film made it feel like "horror-lite", with bloodless kills and an array of loud noises, Flanagan's direction here instead makes it feel old-school, like a classic horror film that suggests more than it shows. The slingshot scene featured in the trailer, which works far better here than it did there (between this and the Ghostbusters reboot, 2016 has been a year for bad trailers), is a prime example. We never see the dumbass kid with the slingshot put his own eye out, only Doris' creepy-ass reaction, but the screams we hear from his direction, combined with the sickening sound of the little pebble hitting flesh when it happens, is enough to say it all. Scenes often didn't play out like I expected them to, waiting for a much greater scare rather than the easy jolt, and Flanagan makes great use of sound and hiding things from the viewer to build this film's atmosphere. While he wasn't quite as good on that front as he was with Oculus, the scare quotient is still remarkably high.
As for the cast, I must give props to Lulu Wilson and Annalise Basso as Doris and Lina. Wilson is amazing as the precocious little Doris who is able to transform into a possessed monster at the drop of a hat, feeling less like a kid playing creepy and more like somebody whose possession has made her terrifyingly wise beyond her years, demonstrated best in the scene where she (or rather, the spirit inside her) describes what it feels like to be strangled to death. The fact that she's telling this to Lina's boyfriend Mikey, who we'd previously seen Alice warn, in no uncertain terms, not to fool around with Lina, lends a great double meaning to that scene: to somebody like Mikey who doesn't know that Doris is possessed, it can be taken as an extension of Alice's threat. Basso, meanwhile, plays the sane one in the family, filling the "skeptic" role that's so common in supernatural horror movies -- except here, it turns out that she's right, and that her credulous mother is making the problem of Doris' possession worse. (Something of a theme for Flanagan and Howard's work, it seems.) It's a great turn for Basso, who previously played the younger version of Karen Gillan's character in Oculus (puberty and '60s fashion have rendered her almost unrecognizable), and with her mom desperately wanting to believe, her Lina becomes a great foil for her as the first one to realize that there's a big problem with Doris. Sadly, Elizabeth Reaser as Alice wasn't as good as the actresses playing her daughters. She wasn't bad, but it was really the writing by Flanagan and Howard that developed her as a character as opposed to Reaser's performance, with the same being something I could also say about the actors playing Father Joe and Mikey. Said writing was this film's other strong suit, most notably in how it builds the tension between Lina and Alice as Lina tries to convince her mother that whatever Doris is speaking to isn't her father, while Alice struggles to come to grips with the fact that her hope of communicating with her dead husband has failed so spectacularly. While it's obvious how this film is going to end if you've seen the original (though I wouldn't blame you for blocking it from your memory or otherwise forgetting about it), it still provides quite a few twists and turns, especially with the spirit's origin, and keeps things focused on the journey as opposed to the destination.
The Bottom Line:
This film was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2016, a sequel that is far, far better than it has any right to be thanks to the team of Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard behind it. Don't let its crappy predecessor dissuade you from missing out on it.