Making a horror movie about the beloved Ouija Board should be, at first glance, an easy proposition. After all, many of the most memorable chillers have used them to menacing effect. From little Linda Blair inviting the ultimate evil into her bedroom with a papered Ouija in The Exorcist to a young couple unwisely borrowing “the best fucking Ouija Board I’ve ever seen” in Paranormal Activity, this children’s toy has participated in some gruesomely adult nightmares. Yet, Universal’s attempt to partner with Hasbro and actually make a franchise out of floating planchettes has proven stubbornly difficult.
2014’s Ouija is unequivocally one of the worst attempts at horror from the last decade: incomplete, startlingly amateurish, and exceedingly dull, the franchise should have been dead on arrival. And yet, its box office success has led to this Halloween’s only major wide release thriller, Ouija: Origin of Evil, a loose prequel of sorts to the first movie.
But the most shocking thing about Origin is that it kind of works. Sometimes. And it is a massive improvement over its predecessor to the point where one wonders if this film wasn’t compelled to lead into the 2014 feature that it might’ve actually been good?
The biggest advantage Ouija: Origin of Evil has is that Mike Flanagan has taken over directorial duties for the franchise, bringing the same measured preference for characterization and stoic pacing that made his own 2013 effort, Oculus, such an underrated gem. And Flanagan is back here with his Oculus co-writer Jeff Howard, as well as Annalise Basso, one of his child actor discoveries also from Oculus. All told, these talents collaborate smoothly once more, creating a film that greatly elevates the concept more than it deserves.
In this movie, we discover the childhood events that led to Lin Shaye’s grim condition from the first Ouija film (not that you likely remember or even need to know). It’s 1965, and instead of being a seemingly half-crazed older woman, Paulina (Basso) is a 16-year-old teenage atheist muddling through some hard times at home. Her father passed away several years ago, and to pay the bills, her mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) scams folks by pretending she’s a psychic while forcing her daughters to help make candles flicker and tables shake.
Alice’s other child Doris (Lulu Wilson), however, believes in the spiritual realm and is only too excited when her mother brings home a new Ouija Board to incorporate into her act. Faster than you can say “Captain Howdy,” Alice’s attempts to turn the Ouija Board into a prop for summoning spirits proves redundant since it really is channeling spirits that look an awful lot like Doug Jones in oily slick CG scuba gear.
However, Paulina wants to have as little to do with this as her Catholic school upbringing. Still, priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas) is suspicious that something truly spiritual is occurring, though not necessarily holy. And as things progress, Doris starts speaking in demonic tongues, rolling her eyes back into white pupils, and finally crawling on the walls in an effect that is not unlike the idea of Linda Blair getting bitten by a radioactive spider.
As aforementioned, Origin of Evil is head and tails above its 2014 namesake, in no small part because the family dynamics between the three women are fairly well developed by Flanagan and Howard. There is a strong hint of an ideological conflict between Paulina and her mother, one being the doubting Catholic girl and the other an especially deluded spiritualist who hypocritically uses her youngest child as a conduit for talking to the dead—oblivious and incurious about what consequences it might have on her children.
Coupled with some pretty nifty and grim revelations about the ghosts in the house, which uses escaped Nazis from World War II to clever results, there is a fairly good ghost story buried in here somewhere. Unfortunately, it is the necessities of making a PG-13 (and excessively formulaic) horror movie that constantly undercuts these intriguing ideas until the film muddles into a lousy third act that could pass as a rejected script for The Exorcist 5.
To be sure, spirituality is actually put on trial in this film far more than most horror movies would dare, but in the end, one suspects the studio or filmmakers erred in favor of making The Conjuring-lite. And there, they succeed in the sense that it makes you long for James Wan’s stronger, more precise storytelling hand. Every single scare in this Ouija revolves around loud crashing noises and sudden images of demonic children bursting into the frame. While the R-rated Conjuring movies are also no strangers to jump scares, Wan turned the thrill of saying “boo” into almost a nigh art-form by meticulously having every shot and set-piece as refined as a musician’s concerto.
Flanagan also knows his way around storylines that really get under your skin and crawl into your psyche, as again seen in Oculus. However, it’s fairly evident that he is holding back here so that Ouija can maintain its widest possible, PG-13 appeal, thereby kneecapping all of the suspense. Consequently, the film as a whole feels manufactured, right down to its Conjuring-esque historical setting. All of the acting is uniformly good, and the child performers in Basso and Wilson do especially well at conveying the grimness of the situation.
Yet, much like Flanagan and Howard’s fairly shrewd set-up, it comes to naught as the film relies on clichés and disappointing tropes as it speeds into its third act, jettisoning anything that could be too novel or unnerving for younger audiences. Maybe, in the end, it is easy to use a Ouija Board as a prop in good horror, much like Alice attempted with her phony séances. But building a franchise around the spirit board (and one that can appeal to the same toy-buying demographic) seems like a waste, exorcising any potential out the scares, no matter how good the summoned talent might be.