'Ouija' is a tiresome retread of run-of-the-mill horror mechanics, wrapped inside a brand name
Ouija Universal Pictures
Director: Stiles White
Screenplay: Stiles White and Juliet Snowden, based on the Hasbro game
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Douglas Smith, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Bianca Santos, Shelley Hennig and Lin Shaye
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 29 minutes
October 24, 2014
(out of four)
As a horror film, Ouija is the embodiment of exactly what is wrong with contemporary studio horror films. It is aggressively PG-13, with a C-list cast, built entirely on jump-scares instead of actual suspense or terror, and its entire purpose is to cheaply exploit an existing brand name.
I think that checks off all the boxes.
I'm on record as saying there's not really any such thing as a bad idea, but this is probably as close as it gets. I mean, it's based on a board game that's good for, what, one use? If that? I hesitate to even call it a game. What possible curiosity could there be in that product that wouldn't run out after about 30 seconds?
But I digress. Apparently those 30 seconds are worth 90 minutes of screen time. In the movie, the game's concept (if you can call it that) gets rolled inside an assembly-line haunted-house conceit that would have worked every bit as well (or every bit as poorly) without the presence of the titular Ouija board. This is one of those cases where it feels like the script probably existed beforehand, and was then retrofitted to include the game once the rights were secured. Take the Ouija board out of the equation and this is a virtually identical movie.
Any conduit will do, really. All that matters is that the characters have some way of communicating with "the other side," and characters in bad horror movies have never had any trouble finding such an object. This time, it happens to be a Ouija board. (Side note: While the movie certainly isn't any good, I admire the fortitude in a product that markets itself by starring in a movie in which it kills people. Buy our product, kids! It's possessed by evil spirits and will probably force you to kill yourself! Only $24.99!)
Needless to say, the film centers around a bunch of teenagers who get engulfed in a death spiral because one of them accidentally unlocks an evil spirit of some kind. The unlucky one in this case is Debbie (Shelley Hennig), who finds an old Ouija board sitting around the house one night and decides to give it a go by herself (which, apparently, is against the rules). After a series of presumably terrifying events resulting from her using the board, Debbie throws it in the fireplace one night, then proceeds to become possessed and hang herself.
Most of the movie focuses on Debbie's best friend Laine (Olivia Cooke), who - along with Pete (Dougals Smith), Isabelle (Bianca Santos), Trevor (Daren Kagasoff) and Sarah (Ana Coto) - attempts to get to the bottom of Debbie's apparent suicide. From there, everything proceeds exactly as you'd expect, from the murdery backstory of Debbie's house, to the detour into the insane asylum, to the Wise Latina Maid who oh-so-conveniently happens to be an expert on evil spirits and all of the rules governing Ouija boards and such. It's all so depressingly familiar.
And then there are the few things that belong in a better movie.
I mentioned the jump-scares earlier, and indeed this movie is absolutely filled with them. It's the family-friendly answer to actual horror. The strange thing is, as cheap jump-scares go, Ouija does them pretty well. (Which, as compliments go, is a bit like saying a porno has really good musical cues.) Director Stiles White has good timing - which is actually a bit annoying, because it tells me those skills could have been put to better use in a movie that wasn't otherwise terrible.
I can only hope the cast is bound for better material as well. With Ouija and the spring's The Quiet Ones, lead actress Olivia Cooke has officially fulfilled her Hollywood obligation to make bad horror movies early in her career, and she can now move on to bigger and better things. She was the best thing about The Quiet Ones and was strong (in a small role) in The Signal as well. She's a solid actress with a chance to be a really good one, but hopefully Ouija - which she handles as well as she can, given the poor material - is the last of this period of her career.
There are worse movies than Ouija, but few that are so emblematic of so many bad Hollywood trends and bad Hollywood habits all at once. Between this and Transformers, if I never see another Hasbro movie ever again, it'll be too soon.