'Ouija: Origin of Evil'
Last year’s ‘Ouija‘ was one of the worst and laziest horror movies released by a major studio in the past decade. The new prequel ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ is one of the best. The reason: Mike Flanagan. The writer/director of the brilliant ‘Oculus‘ came into a downright dull franchise (produced by Michael Bay no less) and was somehow allowed to make the material entirely his own.
It helps that the guy knows scary. Despite never busting past the PG-13 rating, this thing will make you shiver in your seat in a variety of ways. The filmmaker also manages to cram in a moving character piece and a bit of clever storytelling along with some wonderful retro movie style. Studio horror movies aren’t supposed to be this good! Hopefully audiences will show up in the numbers this one deserves and hardened horror fans won’t be scared off by the crappiness of its predecessor.
Taking a page from the ‘Conjuring’ spinoff ‘Annabelle’, ‘Origin of Evil’ is a prequel that takes mythology whispered about in the last movie and brings it to life. Thankfully, all the decent concepts from the last flick were crammed into that backstory and Flanagan (along with his ‘Oculus’ co-writer Jeff Howard) have some new twists to pile on.
The story starts with a clever fake-out gag as faux psychic Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) plays out a silly scam with jump scares executed by her two daughters. She’s been playing psychic to pay the bills. At the suggestion of her eldest daughter (Annalise Basso, also from ‘Oculus’) she buys a Ouija board to add to the act. Her younger daughter, Doris (Lulu Wilson), starts playing with the board and seems to contact real spirits. That causes a boom in the family business, but also gets Doris possessed. The first person to notice is naturally the priest (Henry Thomas – yes, the one from ‘E.T.’) at the girls’ school. Obviously, things will only get spookier from there.
By the standards of contemporary mainstream horror, Flanagan takes time to set up his story. The movie still has scares every few minutes, just not big ones until after the stage is set. The cinematography is beautiful and the 1960s production design lush. Flanagan shoots the movie like a classy late ’70s/early ’80s horror romp, complete with the old Universal logo at the top and fake cigarette burns and reel changes for eagle-eyed film nerds to giggle at. It’s a beautifully shot production and a playfully mounted tale (well, at least at first; things get surprisingly dark). There are amusing in-jokes about the Ouija board’s origin as a board game and its silly mythology. The dialogue has spark. The performances are all impressively naturalistic, and Flanagan once again proves to have a particular gift with young actors. Even the casting choices were made so that the characters all look like real people rather than slumming models. Somehow, this mainstream prequel works as drama. Then the spookiness starts.
While Flanagan knows the importance of strong storytelling and relatable characters to sell a goofy ghost story, he also knows that the money is in making audiences jump and squirm. Thankfully, there’s plenty of that here. Set-pieces are expertly constructed for maximum visceral impact. The movie has all the jumps and whoops and hoots and hollers one would expect from a ‘Conjuring’ picture. However, it’s not all needlessly on overdrive. The slow burn creepiness sometimes works best, often even sneaking into the corners of frames out of focus.
Additions to the backstory add layers of rich psychological disturbance rare in a Hollywood horror romp. The film won’t just make you yelp like a helpless haunted house patron; it will also ooze under your skin with dread. This is a genuinely haunting movie that happens to be PG-13 and fun.
Mainstream PG-13 horror has scraped the bottom of the barrel for profit for so long that it’s easy to forget that, in the hands of a genuinely gifted genre craftsman, buckets of blood and gore aren’t necessary to give audiences the willies. Flanagan delivers just as many unsettling moments here as there were in this year’s ‘Don’t Breathe’, only no apologies are necessary in the story, dialogue or characterization. As a result, the material stings that much more since you’re able to buy into the pulpy thrills. For viewers who were susceptible to the cheap shocks and garbage storytelling of the last ‘Ouija’, this should prove to be genuinely terrifying. For genre snobs who rightly dismissed that lazy claptrap, ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ should be unexpectedly satisfying.
It’s rare that any filmmaker with a genuine voice and style gets to strut his stuff with a successful franchise, but thanks to knowing how to scare the bejesus out of viewers, Flanagan pulled it off. This movie should serve as an introduction to more serious horror fare for youngsters and a fond reminder of classics like ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘The Changeling’ for worn-out old horror-loving chunks of coal like myself. Either way, this prequel to a garbage movie based on a board game is easily the best horror movie to slip out of the studio system this year. This isn’t just a sequel that’s an equal; it’s superior to the original in every conceivable way and justifies the existence of a franchise born entirely out of brand synergy. That shouldn’t even be possible.