OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL – Review
An Ouija board is meant to be a tool or toy, depending on how you view it, to communicate with the spirit world. It’s a device that conjures messages from the “magically moving” wooden or plastic planchette while participants nervously sit in a circle waiting to see if someone will reach out to them from the other side. Often in situations like this (trust me, I have tried this as a kid) you hunch over the board with scared friends and jump at the slightest noise that breaks the silence. So, even though the triangular guide didn’t move an inch, it was the silence that scared us. It’s the possibility that something could call out from the quiet stillness. It’s essentially the fear of communication, and unfortunately for OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, it’s the over abundance of talking that kills the mood in this 60’s seance.
Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is the mother of teenager Lina (Annalise Basso) and young Doris (Lulu Wilson) – a girl cut from the same innocent but curious cloth as Carol Anne from 1982’s POLTERGEIST. As a widower, she struggles to make ends meet as a phony medium, complete with the two girls helping by rattling pictures and playing dress-up as the customer’s deceased relative. One night at a party at a friend’s house, Lina plays around with an Ouija board. The toy spirit board sparks intrigue in Alice who feels that this could be a new addition to the act. Once Alice brings a board home, Doris becomes drawn to it and attempts to speak with her dead father. However, he’s not the only one communicating with the young girl.
Split focus diopter shots, “cigarette burns” in the top corner of the film, and a retro title card are just some of the 60s-70s aesthetic Mike Flanagan playfully injects. The art direction is top notch and is made even better with the perfect house fitted for the time period. This colorful trip down polyester lane unfortunately is also layered with modern effects, like several scenes of the girls’ mouths widening or disappearing completely. These visuals leave a bittersweet taste in this horror fan’s mouth since it doesn’t blend well with the time period that Flanagan is invoking. Incorporating a little bit of modern effects into a retro-styled film can work, as can be seen in both CONJURING films. OUIJA is successful though when sticking with the more minimal scares. A sequence where our young “Carol Anne” describes what it feels like to be suffocated is downright chilling (evoking nervous laughter from my audience after Lulu Wilson’s well-delivered speech).
Flanagan clearly cares about his characters and incorporates scenes throughout for the audience to better connect with them on a personal level. He usually excels in these moments, but only does on a few occasions here. But unlike his last film HUSH or his earlier film ABSENTIA – a low-budget horror allegory about loss, grief, and escaping the past, that I can’t recommend enough – our sympathy for the family’s circumstances aren’t entirely there. It’s interesting and unique that he poses a family as frauds and then asks us to sympathize with them, but the level of sympathy we feel for them is inhibited by a heavy dose of melodrama. The way the script handles motivations and emotions often feels heavy handed or even forced.
Coincidentally, HUSH was released earlier this year with very little dialogue. That film uses subtle shifts in tone and visuals to detail the struggle of a deaf woman to survive. OUIJA spells everything out for the audience. An emotion is expressed verbally instead of shown or implied. Every trait is worn openly on the character’s sleeve. Just to make sure everything is properly understood, there’s even a scene later on where a priest has to explain what’s going on in an awkwardly staged info-dump. The priest basically describes in grave detail what could have been the creepiest scene in the entire film.
Flanagan’s films intentionally move at a slower pace that some will find too tiring, but OUIJA’s finale has some striking imagery, even if one scare is clearly a direct nod or ripoff to a scene in the recently rediscovered EXORCIST III. Expectations will play a huge part going into OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. As a prequel to a generic cash grab from 2014, it works much more effectively and tells a story worthy of incorporating the iconic toy board. However, when you have a now accomplished name guiding this 60’s seance, one can’t help but feel let down by the lack of response and magic from the wooden planchette at his fingertips.
Overall rating: 2.5 out of 5
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is now playing in theaters everywhere