There are certain patterns that we cinefiles accept. One of the most pervasive patterns is that of diminishing returns on horror sequels. As each SAW or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY gets released, we must adjust our expectations down a peg to avoid crushing disappointment.* Ever the cinematic optimist, I hoped that horror franchises were on to something by tapping in to indie horror talent to take the helm of two of this fall’s horror entries. The first of these two was a bit of a bust. Adam Wingard’s BLAIR WITCH is not nearly as bad as other critics are making it out to be, but it did fall short of my admittedly high hopes. The near-miss did make me cautious about Mike Flanagan’s OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL.
I know that this review isn’t about me, and I swear I’ll get to the film in a bit, but I think some background on my complicated relationship to OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL in in order. I thought 2014’s OUIJA was a giant, festering, pile of shit. It did not just disappoint me (though, it did), or make me angry (oh boy, it did), but it personally offended me both as a film critic and a horror fan. It was an insult. Hearing that Hasbro would be dropping another planchette shaped turd on my genre made me wonder if I was going to even subject myself to the intellectual torture of another OUIJA film.
Then the director of the OUIJA prequel was announced, and it was none other than Mike Flanagan. Flanagan is arguably the best horror director working today. OCULUS breezed onto my best of 2014 horror list without any question. And I had two separate conversations with friends just this week where I implored them to see Flanagan’s first film ABSENTIA. ABSENTIA is possibly the best horror film of the last ten years. Period.
This marriage of my greatest cinematic enemy and my greatest cinematic idol left me with no choice but to hold my breath, hope for the best, and ask that I would not be disappointed. So…how did Flanagan do?
I am thrilled to report that OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is not a pile of shit! It is far from one actually. Though it does fall apart a bit near the end (more on that) overall it is a solid family-fueled frightener which I have come to expect from the talented director.
Taking place in 1967, the year after Parker Brothers purchased the rights to the Ouija board, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL focuses on a struggling family. Years after her husband passed away Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is struggling to raise her two daughters and make ends meet. Lina (Annalise Basso) is 15 and in a huge rush to grow up, while her younger sister Doris (Lulu Wilson) is maintaining her childlike innocence, despite a couple of bullies at her school trying to drag her down. All of this would seem perfectly ordinary, were it not for Alice’s career; she is a fortune teller!
Alice runs readings and séances out of her dining room. To make sure that every client gets the closure that they are paying for she has rigged all sorts of candles and tables to dance when she needs them to, and have the house do its best impression of actual communication with the dead. All of this trickery means that Alice and her daughters are not true believers in all of the ghostly apparitions, but it brings their clients closure and brings the families money, so they continue the business. After Lina has a run-in with a Ouija board at a friend’s house Alice decides get one herself and spice up her menu of services.
Though Alice does rig up her new board for trickery, she soon discovers that not only is the board a genuine way to communicate with the dead, but that Doris is a far more powerful medium than she had ever dreamed. Here is where OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL starts to get spooky. When a powerful child plays with the dead and has no regard for the written rules of the game, shit gets real.
Visually Flanagan keeps the tension high throughout the film with his use of deep focus, utilizing not only the whole width of each frame, but the depth of the room within the frame. In each of his films he creates layers of horror that makes the audience pay attention to the film. There are a few jump scares, but more effectively there are startles that slowly ease into the film, often out of focus, tucked behind a moving character. The effect of these surprises is creating unease in the audience. After you notice a creepy bit within the shot, it makes you wonder how long it has been there and what else you might have missed.
This trust in the audience and their ability to pay attention also trickles in to the film’s plot and dialogue. Unlike the first OUIJA, the audience is not talked down to or fed ludicrous situations. Here we are presented with a complicated family and entrusted with understanding their dynamic without being explicitly told why to care about them. We are shown that that Lina is in a rush to grow up, but never have this overtly stated in the film’s text, which would be demeaning and pandering. Instead, Flanagan assumes that the audience is smart enough to pay attention, and in turn we engage more with the film.
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL also plays to Flanagan’s strengths by focusing on the complexity of family dynamics. From ABSENTIA to OCULUS he has shown that he not only understands how complicated families are, but does not dumb down these relationships for the audience. Instead, he makes these complexities the basis of the story, and does use an over-simplified family as an infantile plot device. Families are never easy, and the balance of love and frustration, especially between siblings, should been seen as a strength in film, and not a nuance to avoid.
As I mentioned briefly above, there are a few issues with the ending of the film. Certain horror tropes are unnecessarily introduced, only to be dropped as if they were hot later. The film is creepy enough without the turning to these stereotypically “scary” elements, and it would have been better to not wedge them in to an already sufficiently terrifying film. OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL tries a little too hard in the last 20 minutes, and the overall impression of the film takes a ding because of it.
But even with the late missteps OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is a strong horror film. It does not insult the audience’s intelligence and still manages to create some scares along the way. What a relief.
*There are, of course, exceptions. I will defend both HOSTEL 2 and HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 until my dying day. And we all know the wonder of HALLOWEEN 3 and WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE.