Mark Reviews Movies

Ouija: Origin of Evil


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mike Flanagan

Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Doug Jones, Lin Shaye

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 10/21/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 21, 2016

Apparently, one should never judge the prequel to a terrible, board game-based movie by its predecessor. Since its story was already related during a dull dumping of back story in the 2014 movie, Ouija: Origin of Evil may be relatively pointless, but co-writer/director Mike Flanagan's creepily effective film has at least one thing going for it in that regard: The first movie was so repetitive and forgettable that it's unlikely anyone really cares about or even remembers the story as it was told in the original.

Even without the exposition from the previous movie, this story would be familiar. It's yet another horror tale of an ordinary family haunted and tormented by otherworldly spirits. Once again, the hook of the screenplay, written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, is that the spirits have been summoned or simply made known through the use of a spirit board (It's not just any spirit board, of course, but the one that's trademarked by a certain toy company, although, thankfully, the product placement here is less distracting and less absurd than the last time). We've seen this story and these characters, whose desire to understand the workings of the spirit world puts them has unintended—albeit, completely predictable—consequences, before.

Flanagan, though, is smart enough as a filmmaker to know that what these spirits do is far less important than how they do it. He's also keen enough to understand that the what and the how of the spirits matter even less than how he portrays what they do.

As seems to be his habit, Flanagan also serves as the film's editor. There's a precision to the film's scare scenes and its mounting sense of dread that is unique among this brand of generic Hollywood horror.

The first thing one may notice is an element that is absent from the film. If you've seen any horror film in the past 10 or 15 or maybe even 20 or more years, then the formula of a typical scare should be familiar. There's a build-up, typically of a character becoming increasingly aware of some presence near him or her. There are one or two fake-outs, in which the character and the audience think they see something. The punch is the confirmation, and almost as a rule at this point, it's supposed to be accompanied by a deafening musical sting of some kind on the soundtrack.

Flanagan follows the pattern up until that last part. For the first act of the film, those scenes play out in near-silence. The ghosts are still there, of course, and Flanagan still intends to use them to scare us. He doesn't, though, force their presence or their movements on us. There's no sting when they appear on screen or dart in and out of frame.

Take a series of shots in which Doris (Lulu Wilson, whose performance, as the character who becomes too involved with the spirit realm, is a chilling balance of childish charm and artifice, punctuated by an eerily wide smile), a 9-year-old girl who's attuned to the spirit realm, uses the lens on the spirit board's planchette to see the spirit that's communicating with her. The pattern of shots is the same, but when the camera spots the curves of a human form that's barely visible in the shadows of a room, the lack of music or any other sort of vigorous sound becomes unnerving. We know what should be here, and Flanagan, clearly a genre aficionado, knows that he can rattle us by simply removing one piece of our expectations.

This also gives him the freedom to knock us for a loop when the music (an unobtrusive but still creepy score by The Newton Brothers) does arrive. Without giving it away, let's say that Flanagan rightly picks the exact moment when the score comes into play. Within that moment of real terror, he also knows exactly when to return silence to the scene.

The shift in approach makes Flanagan's intent clear. He isn't trying to hit us with scare after cheap, predictable scare. He has a long game in mind, and it's to generate an uneasy atmosphere of dread.

It helps that the story has a solid, human foundation, too. In 1967 Los Angeles, Lulu, her 15-year-old sister Lina (Annalise Basso), and their mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) are still coping with the sudden death of the girls' father and Alice's husband. Alice works as a spiritual medium, conducting sham séances (She prefers to call them "readings") for cash in the dining room of the family home.

The family has hit hard financial times, and unpaid bills mean a foreclosure is imminent. After playing with the board game at a party, Lina suggests her mother buy one as a prop. It turns out that Lulu's connection to spirits (She describes it as being like listening to a car radio while going through a tunnel) becomes stronger with the aid of the board, and Alice decides that Lulu can provide the comfort and closure to grieving families that she only faked. Eventually, Lina and the local priest (Henry Thomas), himself a widower, begin to suspect that Lulu's spiritual connection may not be as innocent as it seems.

It's a steady entryway into the plot, and Flanagan and Howard treat the family's grief with enough respect that it doesn't seem like an overt plot device. If Ouija: Origin of Evil falters, it's in the climax, which throws just about everything at these characters—from a Nazi ghost to skulls to dead bodies. Flanagan's control of this sequence isn't as strong as it is earlier (There's something off about the flow of connecting each piece of the climax), but because everything before that is as strong as it is, it really doesn't matter.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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