In the grand scheme of 2016’s mainstream horror scene, Ouija: Origin Of Evil certainly bolsters the argument that we’re having one hell of a year – even if it’s not at the top. Director Mike Flanagan does what he does best by summoning a comfortable (unnerving), safe (tormenting) haunter that’s certainly better than Hasbro’s previous occult killer, but that doesn’t stop a familiar sense of “I’ve seen this before” from seeping in. You’ll scream at telegraphed scares, indulge in grainy 60s chic and learn where the evil began (all you rabid Ouija fans, wherever you are). Maybe just tone down the cheap jumps next time? Like, well below 11?
Flanagan’s prequel to last year’s Ouija introduces viewers to the famous board game’s promised curse. Another dopey family (the Zanders) ignores ominous warnings included with their Ouija game, and their daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson) pays the price. Mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) thinks all is for a reason, since Doris’ new abilities increase their family’s business profits (supernatural scam artists turned legit), but her daughter couldn’t be farther from safety. As Doris’ connection with the other side strengthens, a malevolent force threatens all those in its path. Soon enough, the Zander family discovers their homely abode has a few skeletons in its closet, and Doris has the means to give them a voice once more.
I mean, at what point do we sit down all horror movie characters and scream “JUST FOLLOW THE RULES!” In the first scenes of Ouija: Origin Of Evil, Doris’ sister Paulina (Annalise Basso) is seen playing with a friend’s Ouija board and never says goodbye (Rule #3). Then, we get scenes of both Doris AND Alice playing with their newly-purchased board alone (Rule #2). There are three rules to the game and two are broken in record time, really? This is the kind of simple horror formulation that permits plenty of scares, but doesn’t delve anywhere inventive or ingenious. Flanagan has the task of making a straight prequel to the original film (which could have easily been forgotten and buried forever), so he’s already handcuffed to canon – but such streamlined expediencies do no favors to an already by-the-book possession thriller.
That said, Flanagan knows knows how to scare an audience. Cameras pan around an empty room in obvious fashion setting up base-value jump scares, but Oujia: Origin Of Evil is nothing short of a wicked, white-knuckled house of horrors. Shocking thrills and vicious chills are delivered by the film’s pint-sized terrorizer, as Doris lurches from the darkness with those milky dead eyes fixed on audience members.
For as derivative as its setups may be, Ouija: Origin Of Evil is nasty nightmare fuel that preys on both atmosphere and orchestral spikes, much like any horror movie loaded with jump scares out the wazoo. The only difference here is that Flanagan knows how to navigate treacherous cheapness with certain deft and intensity (bungee hanger/mirror), where the original Ouija jammed two bottom-feeding jumps into one massive turd sundae.
Little Lulu Wilson is quite the malevolent force as Doris Zander, who becomes inhabited by the midnight-toned soul of Doug Jones’ lurking spirit. We only get momentary glimpses of Jones in his tar-skinned form, making Wilson the film’s main antagonist. The family triumvirate of Alice, Paulina and Doris all fight their perspective demons with ample genre whimsy, but what a presence Wilson has as the blonde-haired schoolgirl with a howling shriek.
Granted, her scariest facial forms are torn from David Sandberg’s Lights Out short, and Jones’ monster reminds of James Wan’s Insidious, which again hits upon the familiarity of Ouija: Origin Of Evil (didn’t someone hang in Ouija?) – but those borrowed blows strike harder when mechanics are running smoothly. The way Wilson sits mouth agape, or runs up walls, or verbally taunts characters through the Devil’s dialogue – Doris is such a ravenous debasing of innocence, and possesses quadruple the power of most villains her age/size. Flat out – and as a total compliment – Lulu Wilson is creepy as all hell (much like the entire film).
There are issues in Mike Flanagan’s attempt to remain a faithful prequel, but everything Ouija: Origin Of Evil sets out to do it achieves. Funhouse horrors will have audiences screaming, shielding their eyes from one of the more manacle kiddo villains to recently scare young adults off of parenthood. Kudos to Flanagan for including more than generic spooks and jolts, as his characters take time for sweet embraces that lighten the mood versus a constant sense of foreboding doom – but doom isn’t forgotten, of course. Ouija: Origin Of Evil is some abusive, evil horror stifled by an air of predictability, but never snuffed out. It’s horror comfort food served in a cozy period themed restaurant – never top-dollar, but always does the job.
Ouija: Origin Of Evil would have been better than Ouija with even a quarter of the screams evoked, which makes the tremendous jump in quality quite refreshing despite derivative storytelling.