When you’re basing a big screen movie off of something other than a book or a successful television show or another movie, you’re looking for trouble. When you base your film off of a popular childhood toy, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You have to be amazingly creative to pull that little trick off, something the Pixar clan accomplished with the Toy Story films and Miller and Lord pulled off with the world of LEGO. However, those games are all friendly, colorful games. There’s a darker game sitting on shelves with the Hasbro stamp, and that’s the Ouija board.
Part toy, part hoax, part occult tool, the Ouija has a unique place in popular culture. Popularized in the Western world by American spiritualist Pearl Cullan circa WWI as a tool to contact the dead, the witchboard or talking board became a cultural phenomenon. As early as 1944, Ouija-style boards were part of horror lore, and they’ve been popping up ever since, whenever you need to have a group of people confronted and killed off by some sort of creeping, ghostly horror.
Enter Ouija, the PG-13 team-up between horror mega-producer Jason Blum’s Blumhouse and Hasbro, makers of every one of your favorite childhood games. The popular Debbie (Teen Wolf‘s Shelley Hennig) has a little accident with a string of fairy lights after acting strangely for a few weeks, and by accident I mean her eyes turn solid white and she hangs herself from her second floor bedroom. This leaves behind a bunch of sad friends, particularly her best friend Laine (Olivia Cooke, aka Emma DeCody from Bates Motel) and her boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith). The two gather up a few more friends and, while investigating Debbie’s death, stumble across her recently-used Ouija board. One bright idea to consult with the spirits later, and the five kids are in more trouble than they could ever possibly imagine.
Ouija, though, contains nothing you haven’t seen before. Indeed, the movie is fairly predictable, and the script by director Stiles White and collaborator Juliet Snowden (who also teamed up to write surprisingly good Jewish-themed exorcism tale The Possession) is well-trodden territory.
However, the thing that the film has going for it, aside from the impressive scares, is pacing. Horror films typically use rising action, with everything coming to a screaming head in the third act. Ouija is less rising and more constant, a ticking metronome of terror that starts from the cold opening and continues throughout the movie. Rather than rising, the film moves along steadily, somehow being scarier than it should be in the process. The film also makes good use of the planchette’s role in seeing into the spirit realm – it’s a guaranteed jump-scare machine every time, thanks to some good monster makeup and clever staging.
One of the other things that allows Ouija to be better than advertised is Olivia Cooke. She’s a favourite for her Bates Motel role, but she’s a good actress – friendly, relatable, appealing on a very basic level. Unlike some folks, you look at her and you kind of want to like her, which helps her character fly even after she’s managed to put her friends in danger. Another boost to the film is the presence of Lin Shaye. She’s the hidden gem of the Blumhouse machine, able to show up and lend either grandmotherly warmth or cronely menace depending on her role in the film, sometimes both at once.
Ouija is comfortably familiar for those au fait with the haunted house genre. There’s nothing particularly exciting or noteworthy about it, but that’s fine. Ouija is the rare PG-13 shocker that isn’t secretly an R-rated horror film with its teeth pulled, and there’s plenty of room for that in cinemas this time of year. It’s a familiar tale told well, starring some reasonably likable teenagers (no one to root for dying here), and spiced up by some scary-for-the-rating special effects. It’s Halloween, and this film is a fun-sized candy bar; it has the taste of a big bar, but it’s easier to consume in one sitting without feeling ill.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan would never, ever, ever have a witchboard, Ouija board, talking board, spiritual conduit, creepy doll, or ventriloquist dummy anywhere near his house. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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