While 2014’s Ouija boasted a modest box office success story (at least for a week), there’s no question that its glorified product placement premise is about as hokey as they come. The more interesting question is whether or not a decent horror film can be culled from the concept of an allegedly spooky board game that hasn’t actually scared anyone over the age of ten since its inception. The answer provided by Michael Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil is a surprising yes, with some significant caveats.
Where writer-director-editor Flanagan’s strategy works is in its marginalization of the Parker Bros.’ planchette, relegating the titular talking board to little more than a McGuffin in what amounts to a pretty standard haunted house/possession narrative. The eponymous Ouija remains visually central, but the object itself could have been literally anything else that might feasibly open the door to the demonic. What Flanagan delivers is not so much a prequel as it is a standalone film, the nature of its connection to the first Ouija only fully revealed in a post-credits stinger. Rather than getting hung up on franchise building, Flanagan crafts a narrative grounded in character and setting that’s only tangentially interested in dealing with the source material, thereby leaving room for some genuine scares that its preposterous premise might’ve otherwise precluded.
Set in the late 1960s, the film’s anachronistic seance setup hearkens back not only to 1890s spiritualism but also to 1970s exploitation cinema. Flanagan revels in the film’s period setting, employing visual cues such as artificial cigarette burns every twenty minutes (wholly unnecessary in a digital world devoid of reels to be changed) and a vintage Universal logo to enhance his aesthetic texture. The influence of era-appropriate movies like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror is evident, with the film sometimes reading like explicit homage if not outright theft. However, all of this supports suspension of disbelief once the movie’s blend of practical and digital effects, smoothing out the rough edges on shots that have been seen before elsewhere.
There’s nothing particularly inventive here, but no one with realistic expectations should be laboring under the delusion that a film about a plastic toy for pseudo-spiritualists might revolutionize the genre. Though the plot mechanics are highly predictable, the film makes up for its lack of originality by not taking itself too seriously, recognizing that its function is to creep out the audience rather than to reinvent the fright-flick wheel. As such, we’re treated to a scattershot approach that works more often than it doesn’t, packing in every genre cliche from possessed little girls to a Josef Mengle proxy haunting an old dark house. The reason this kitchen sink methodology gets a pass is that by the time you’ve stopped to think about the film’s abrupt shifts in focus it’s already moved on to the next scare, a bit like the horror equivalent to a lesser Marx Brothers movie.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is a sparsely populated, tightly wound horror film that doesn’t mess with the fundamentals. Solid performances and densely packed scares in the third act overshadow shallow characterization and a significant second act slump, resulting in a film that functions far better than its source material should’ve allowed. True, it won’t change the way you look at horror movies — or Ouija boards, for that matter — but it does provide the most seasonally appropriate viewing option in theaters this Halloween weekend. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher, Epic of Hendersonville