Major props should go to writer/director Mike Flanegan (“Oculus,” “Hush”) for taking on a project that began with a Hasbro toy (the Ouija Board!) instead of an idea and molding it into something that’s more than worthwhile and not a shallow, uninspired money grab/ glorified product placement.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” (a prequel to a movie I saw but have no memory of, I think a crazy lady was in a mental hospital at one point for some reason) certainly isn’t groundbreaking. It contains the usual horror clichés and devices: séances, psychic readings, a creepy little girl who talks to imaginary ghosts and then is possessed by one, a secret torture chamber inside a haunted house, intense emotional trauma brought on by a violent accident affecting the protagonist etc. Yet Flanegan manages to make it work through a combination of humor and horror.
The film begins at a suburban home circa 1965. The owner, Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is in the middle of a psychic reading with an older man and his daughter. To cut to the chase, the meeting gets heated and ends on a note of intensity when a ghost pops out from behind the curtain, almost giving the poor man a heart attack. However, after the father and daughter leave it turns out to be all a con job orchestrated by Alice and her two daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). This scene does a god job of setting up the rest of the film not only by introducing the reoccurring theme of deception but also by establishing a tongue in cheek-ness. “Ouija” isn’t as self-referential or snarky as “Scream” but Flanegan and the cast still have fun — not taking things too seriously. Following the faux séance the three bicker about how it could have gone better (“you’re not supposed to almost give him a heart attack!”).
Flanegan takes his time in setting up the narrative. Alice lost her husband in a sudden car accident and she sees these phony séances, as a means of helping other people get closure with their own loved ones. However, that ain’t paying the bills so she goes out and buys an Ouija Board of her own to spice up her act and accidentally summons mysterious spirits.
It works! It really works! Put that on the box!
The spirits can only communicate through Doris because she’s a little girl and only little girls can talk to ghosts in horror movies. So Alice exploits her human ghost communication device, continuing on with the home séance business except she not longer has to rely on homemade special effects. There really are ghosts. Flanegan keeps the silliness going; in one funny and unexpected moment a ghost talks directly through Doris.
But it’s not all fun and games and before long it’s clear that a legitimate force of evil is lurking in the shadows, putting the family in danger. There’s nothing lousy or uninspired about the scares Flanegan concocts. Like all great horror films “Ouija” relies on subtly, letting the horrific images speak for themselves (without jump cuts or loud base) and consistently occurring patterns of wind up terror: slow build up, followed by sudden bursts of terror, and then back to normal again, awaiting the next burst. There are a number of truly disturbing moments of terror that will burrow into your psyche and stay there. Instead of going for the easy jump scares, Flanegan slowly creates an atmosphere of creepiness and unease.
At the same time, the picture doesn’t shed its silliness and maybe the most impressive thing about “Ouija” is that it manages to be knowingly silly and legitimately terrifying. In one scene you’ll be giggling madly at something and then in another you’ll witness something horrific that will leave you anxiously biting your nails. In this way, the humor works to throw you off the scent so the film can then ambush you with frights. While the broad strokes of the narrative remain fairly familiar throughout, this peculiar balancing of humor and horror kept me fully engrossed from start to finish.
The acting is solid across the board but the scene-stealer is Wilson. The child actor is not only natural but also nuanced—making Doris into intelligent, curious and energetic little girl, along with being creepy. She can be utterly unpredictable, sweet one minute and sinister the next. One of my favorite scenes involves her delivering a devilish monologue about asphyxiation. Creepy little girl who can talk to ghosts might be the stalest cliché in this film but Wilson gives it some much-needed life.
“Ouija” isn’t as strong as some of the other horror films from 2016 like “The Witch,” “The Wailing,” or “Under The Shadow.” It’s not as fresh, ambitious or scary and things get a little convoluted towards the end. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun, delivering moments of welcomed silliness and intelligent scares.