THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"OUIJA: ORIGIN of EVIL"
Ouija: Origin of Evil automatically has two strikes going against it: it's based on a board game, and it's a prequel to a poorly-received horror film (2014's Ouija). You could be forgiven for completely writing off the movie. But don't. In what ranks as one of the year's happiest surprises, this is a terrific old-school fright flick that delivers both chills and substance.
Set in 1967, the movie stars Elizabeth Reaser (Twilight) as Alice Zander, a widow with two young daughters, teenage Lina (Annalise Basso) and nine-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson). To earn money, Alice runs a séance scam, convincing grieving people that they are communicating with deceased loved ones. The girls help out with this ruse. One day, she buys a Ouija board to include as a prop. At Doris's suggestion, they all use it to contact their husband/father. Alice is stunned to find that the paranormal really exists. She does not, however, realize that they haven't reached her husband, but rather a demonic entity that immediately possesses Doris. Henry Thomas (E.T.) plays Father Tom, the girls' Catholic school principal who notices her odd behavior and tries to help the family out.
Directed and co-written by Mike Flanagan (Oculus), Ouija: Origin of Evil is every bit as concerned with storytelling as it is with scares. The film deals with the theme of grief. Alice fools people into thinking their family members are sending them positive messages from beyond the grave. She believes that she is helping them in some way through this scam. They can put their minds at ease. It's clear, however, that she's really trying to help herself. By convincing her customers that they are achieving closure, Alice hopes to find some of her own.
Doris and Lina struggle with grief, as well. The former is too young to understand what really happened to her father, but she certainly feels his absence. Lina understands all too well, lamenting that her dad isn't around for things like meeting her first boyfriend. All three of the Zander women want to believe that their departed is watching over them somehow. The Ouija board offers a glimmer of hope. When it actually provides the exact opposite, each of them has to process the letdown.
That's heady stuff for a horror movie based on a Hasbro game. Origin of Evil creates a fairly deep story and three-dimensional characters you come to care about, then uses your investment to pull off some genuinely effective shock moments. Especially in the third act, things happen that you don't expect, or happen in ways you don't expect. Whereas many paranormal thrillers these days are only about hitting scare beats, this one understands that we're more prone to jumping and screaming when we have reasons to pay rapt attention.
Reaser, Basso, and Wilson are all outstanding, each of them conveying how loss has impacted their respective characters. Wilson is particularly good, avoiding the cliches of the “possessed child” and ensuring that Doris's humanity shines through, even when her eyeballs are going all white and she's climbing on the walls. The performances ground Origin of Evil in something very human, giving it more weight and emotion than you would expect from a movie about a Ouija board.
Flanagan has some fun with the visuals, too, capturing the look of a shot-on-film work from another era. It has the low-lit, texture-filled vibe of a chiller from the late '60s or early '70s. Other touches will be appreciated by film buffs, such as the way he uses the old Universal logo at the beginning, or the presence of “cigarette burns” (the markings used to indicate a reel change back in the celluloid era) every 18-20 minutes. Those things are, to a degree, subliminal, but they absolutely add to the overall feel, especially if you grew up on big screen thrillers.
Even if you didn't see the first Ouija – and I confess that I did not – Origin of Evil is worthy viewing for fans of smart, sophisticated horror. It contains all the requisite scares, wrapped up in a compelling human drama. This could so easily have been another pointless cash-in prequel like Annabelle, or another Why does this need to exist? board game adaptation like Battleship. Instead, it's one of the best movies of its kind in recent years.
( 1/2 out of four)
Ouija: Origin of Evil is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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