On parlor tricks, genre expectations, and the fleeting pleasures of the ultimately middling Ouija prequel
Ouija: Origin of Evil Universal Pictures
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenplay: Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, based on the board game by Hasbro
Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, Parker Mack and Henry Thomas
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 39 minutes / 1.85:1
October 21, 2016
(out of four)
You know what? No. I thought about it, and Ouija: Origin of Evil doesn't get a pass just because it manages to be more imaginatively crafted than its many low-rent studio horror contemporaries. There's too much fearless and fascinating work coming out of horror these days, both here and abroad, for something of merely passable quality - something that leaves occasionally strong but only momentary impressions - to really cut it.
In other words, Origin of Evil is just good enough to make you realize, and lament, that it's not quite good enough. Or more importantly, not distinctive enough. That it fits comfortably into a specific studio mold - modestly budgeted PG-13 horror isolated mostly to a single location, with an emphasis on shrouded figures and bumps in the night and nightmarish haunts over more tactile ones - is part of what makes its virtues stand out. There's more personality in director Mike Flanagan's arranging of the ebbs and flows between unease and terror - more precision in his staging and execution - than in most of the film's more apathetic, lazily assembled counterparts. Including, but not limited to, the lousy original Ouija movie two years ago. (In recent months, you can look at such classics as Lights Out, The Darkness, The Disappointments Room or The Boy to see the kind of half-hearted crap we have to go through every year on a regular basis.)
But even focusing on its merits, this prequel is basically James Wan Lite, with a few nicely designed sequences and striking visual bursts subsidized by the same kind of assembly-line garbage that drives most of those other movies. Wan, who has carved out a distinctive niche in low-budget studio horror, does seem to be the template for this film. It's similar to Wan's most common setup - a nice family, a suburban house, and a lingering malevolent spirit within, trying to pull the family's innocents into the dark. And a few of its best images even seem Insidiously familiar (the charcoal figures with white eyes that materialize abruptly; the existential limbo hovering on some other plane inside your very own home). Here, the focus of the story is on the widowed Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), who operates as a faux-medium out of her home, struggling to provide for daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson).
But as I said, Origin of Evil is merely Wan Lite - its vision isn't nearly as full-bodied, nor is its atmospheric effect as consistent - and that's the movie at its best. It still spends a whole lot of its time droning through cursory scenes of plot and exposition that seem all too boilerplate. The initial teases of supernatural power that turn out to be nothing. The fight between the worried parent and the mildly rebellious teen. The introduction of the Concerned Educator (in this case the principal of the girls' Catholic school, Father Tom, played by Henry Thomas), who expresses worry about a child's behavior and ends up getting unwittingly roped into a situation much more serious in nature. The scenes that play out aren't bad, necessarily; they're fine, just stolidly efficient. They are the lifeless in-between moments that would only be justified if everything surrounding them were spectacular.
The younger daughter, Doris, is the ghostly force's prime target, and she becomes the film's de-facto centerpiece. Most of the scenes that work best involve her character - whether it's her initial flirtation with an otherworldly presence through the Ouija board on the kitchen table (which makes terrific use of the board game's planchette, its warped glass making for a nifty way to transmit supernatural consciousness) or the more upsetting way her possessed body and mind are used during the heightened mania of the film's final third. Wilson's performance, thankfully, is equal to the task. She's as creepy as she can be, the evil inside her camouflaged with a placid cordiality.
The many perfunctory scenes of intros and story mechanics nearly pay off down the stretch, but ultimately don't linger in the psyche or the bones the way something of more primal terror would. You admire the technical qualities, the way certain scenes build up and pay off, but there's nothing substantial about any of it; Flanagan gives us a series of well-executed tricks that work only for a moment at a time. It's like going through an elaborate haunted house at a carnival, or on the outskirts of town during Halloween, and getting a good jolt around every corner. Those jolts work, but then the moment is gone and you look at it with a detached, subconsciously disappointed sense of admiration - "Hey, it's cool how they did that, huh?" - and you nod your head with a smirk and walk away and you never think about it again.
For me, at least, I keep waiting for the buzz about Flanagan - considered to be one of horror's rising stars - to pay off. His movies are never terrible, but neither do they ever seem to come close to their potential. Oculus talked and talked and talked its way out of its own psychologically fertile premise. Hush was much better (and more ambitious) in concept than in its actual design. Ouija: Origin of Evil, I suppose, is sort of an exception, in that it surpasses its apparent potential, or at least its expectations - assuming the first movie is the barometer. But in the end it's just a slightly above-average incarnation of a studio prototype that typically delivers below-average results. With all that's going on in horror these days, that's not enough to get you a seat at my table.