Overview: In 1965, a widow and her two daughters inadvertently unleash evil into their household through a Ouija board. Universal Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 99 minutes.
Always Say Goodbye: By all accounts, excluding the almighty dollar sign, Ouija should have been the end of a would-be franchise. When a sequel was announced, the proposition seemed ludicrous. Surely a franchise built on such a poor foundation could only sink lower. Yet, even with the odds stacked against it, Mike Flanagan took the reins of what he decided would be a prequel, a surprising move that wouldn’t even allow the franchise to escape the impending doom of that first film’s canonical existence. But Ouija: Origin of Evil isn’t seeking to escape that first film, in fact the prequel is directly tied to the events of its predecessor, exclusively dealing with the mythology and backstory introduced previously. Flanagan uses the best parts of that original film to bring new life into this film, retroactively making this new release the classic original, and turning the first film into the sequel that failed. Ouija: Origin of Evil is entirely operating on Flanagan’s terms, and whatever identity and legacy that first film had is now swallowed up by a terrific cinematic magic trick that proves the viability of horror prequels when handled with care.
A Family That Plays Together, Pays Together: Taking a cue from James Wan, Ouija: Origin of Evil provides us with a family of likeable characters and takes the time to allow us to get to know every single one of them, as well as the secondary characters that impact their lives. The film never rushes to get to jump scares or the obvious moments of horror that made the first film so generic. Instead, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard understand that horror is at its most affective when we’re witnessing it happen to people we’ve grown to care about, and when the horror doesn’t simply stem from loud noises or figures in the dark but from the dissolution of these characters hopes and dreams. Within the first ten minutes, we become endeared to these characters. Marketing materials may have set up the Zander family as scam artists who use their fortune telling business to rob foolish clients, but that isn’t the case. They need the money to stay in their house and live on a single income, and while Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) and her daughters may use tricks to convince people of their loved ones’ wellness in the afterlife, they actually do it with the intent to help people grieve and move on. After the elder daughter, Paulina (Annalise Basso), badly frightens a client, Alice turns down payment for the session, which immediately signals to the audience that these aren’t people who deserve the bad things that happen to them.
Once the horror proper kicks in and the youngest daughter, Doris (Lulu Wilson), becomes a vessel for a force of evil the film maintains an impressive focus. The film remains a story of a family, one who has lives outside of things that go bump in the night. While some other recent studio horror movies have attempted to juggle too many variables and introduce too many sources of horror, Ouija: Origin of Evil maintains its singular threat and gets the most out of the horror that stems from it. Wilson’s performance as Doris is a standout in a long line of creepy children the genre has played host to. The possessed Doris is just so damn pleased with herself all the time that it’s impossible not to smirk at the things she says or the looks she gives people. Ouija: Origin of Evil is frightening, but it’s also funny because it operates with the knowledge that discomfort and absurdity can be cause for laughter. The film displays a wonderful control over our emotions in this way, and even as tragedy and the creep-level spikes, the film never stops being an absolute joy to watch.
House of Horrors: Earlier this year, Mike Flanagan brought a fresh perspective to the slasher genre with Hush. Ouija: Origin of Evil is that fresh perspective brought to the haunted house genre, making this the year of Mike Flanagan taking some of horror’s oldest subgenres and bringing in a new level of tension and artistry. The storyline may not be all that original, and that’s what keeps the Origin of Evil from being great, but the filmmaking is, and it’s signed with a flourish. What Flanagan adds to the haunted house subgenre is through Ouija: Origin of Evil’s hand-made feeling. This film is a stage show, or a haunt attraction if you will, where occupants know they’re watching skilled fakery in front of them, but that isn’t what matters. What matters is the reaction of surprise, of excitement, and fear that creeps up in the dark. From the moment the film starts and we see the 1980s Universal logo, followed by an old-fashioned title card, we’re made aware that this is film was conceived with the idea to remind viewers that their watching something made, something with visible stitching and therefore visible craft that was made by people and not a studio machine. And so from its opening minutes, this film directly sets itself apart from the workman-like production of the first film. Cigarette burns intermittedly mark the right-hand corner of the screen, pointing out the film’s own artifice. The effects that make up most of the scares surrounding Doris’s possession are handled mostly by CGI. These effects don’t look real, and the first couple times we encounter them it becomes somewhat of a poor mark against the film. But as the story continues and we see Doris’s mouth stretch in ways human physiology, or practical effects for that matter, would never allow, we become aware that photo-reality isn’t what’s trying to be achieved here. What Ouija: Origin of Evil is seeking is the optimum number of chills, and handles them in the most effective way to achieve that, with concern for realness. We know what we’re watching isn’t real or even feigning to be, but we’re so invested in the story that it doesn’t really matter. This idea, of wanting to believe in non-reality, is the very thing that leads the Zanders into this situation of horror in the first place. As Father Tom, played by a much welcome Henry Thomas, tells the Zanders, the evil impacting their lives is using their shock and desire against them in order to trick them into believing in something that doesn’t exist. And so, Mike Flanagan with a slight of hand and ghoulish grin achieves the very thing same thing as the evil in this film: he lets us see the filmmaking spirit at work here and we gladly accept it because we want to believe in the magic of horror movies while knowing full well who is responsible for our wakeful night and quick glimpses into the dark corners of the room.
Overall: Ouija: Origin of Evil is a genuinely creepy affair that proves that a franchise really can be completely turned around by a strong directorial voice. From tunnels to mirrors to killers in the dark, and now to haunted attractions, it’s clear who the genre’s funhouse maestro is. If Mike Flanagan continues down this track for another few years, he’ll easily be considered one of our masters of horror, primed to stand alongside the genre’s greats.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures