‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ conjures up some scares
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Written by: Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard
Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, and Henry Thomas
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” – One might find and purchase an ordinary-looking Ouija board at a toy store, but this particular item has the strangest rules:
1. Never play alone
2. Never play in a graveyard
3. Always say, “Goodbye”
I am probably not breaking the “rules”, when I divulge that at least one person in “Ouija: Origin of Evil” fails to follow one or more of the aforementioned rules. It is a horror movie, right? That is to be expected. Well, after watching this film – written and directed by Mike Flanagan - I absolutely expect that I will never purchase a Ouija board, let alone break any of its rules.
Flanagan sets this disturbing story almost 50 years into the past - 1967 Los Angeles - and introduces us to the small business of Madame Zander - Fortune Teller, housed in a two-story Victorian home which reminded me of the locale from the 2016 horror film, “Lights Out”. Although the home has ample square footage that would cause an eager real estate agent to salivate, the creepiness factor can make a semi-fragile moviegoer sweat.
Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is sweating these days as well. This likeable, 40-something widow is raising her two girls, Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), and having serious trouble making financial ends meet. Quite frankly, she is not a very good fortune teller. One day, however, she discovers a Ouija board and adds it to her repertoire. Her youngest daughter, Doris, takes to the new prop like a fish to water. Doris seems to be communicating with the dead, and we all know that peace in this house will go south in a hurry.
With a runtime of one hour and 39 minutes, the story does not waste too much time, as mayhem ensues after some established pleasantries with Alice’s family. This is a nice family, but they are under duress. Lina, a high school sophomore, pushes her mom’s boundaries and Doris, about eight years old, struggles to make friends, and the girls’ issues place additional pressure on Alice. In turn, their collective stressors help attract negative energy from beyond. These undercurrents effectively garner additional sympathy for the family, as malevolent forces begin to invade their home.
These forces make all three Zanders suffer, but Doris, a sweet, blue-eyed, blonde-haired kid, takes the massive brunt of it, not unlike Carol Anne from “Poltergeist” (1982). In this case, Doris is not trapped inside of a television set, but Flanagan must have noted the parallels between the two films. As a type of homage, Doris watches plenty of TV, while she is clearly not herself, after days of working the Ouija board.
The overall story arc follows a predictable pattern: the discovery of the board, the supernatural problems that it causes and the hopeful shutdown of its black magic. Along the way, we see familiar supernatural snares from other recent horror films, like “Insidious” (2010) and “The Conjuring” (2013), but this movie successfully conjures up tension too. A sense of claustrophobia forms as most of the scares occur within the house, and Flanagan adds a grandfather clock in the living room that constantly ticks and tocks in the background.
The picture is visually troubling as well, including the revealing findings that Doris sees by gazing through the planchette’s window and slowly panning across the parlor and living rooms.
The movie does take a sudden and ambitious left turn in its third act which greatly expands the story but does so with mixed results. Shutting down the board’s black magic becomes much more challenging for Alice and the girls, and the additional difficulty feels like they face unnecessary and impossible odds. Conversely, the increased scope does not seem terribly inconsistent with the basic narrative and gives the film an added dimension.
Speaking of dimensions, Flanagan’s movie asks us to take a couple leaps of faith, such as Lina’s ability to recognize the Polish language. I know that French, Spanish and German were offered at my high school, but I do not believe Polish is a common fourth option with many typical curriculums. Also, Father Tom (Henry Thomas) – the head of Doris and Lina’s catholic school – apparently has no other responsibilities other than to address their issues and make house calls for Alice, and his constant presence becomes eye rolling after a while.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is an effective, but not necessarily terrific, horror film. With its familiar style, it feels like it blends together with several recent movies rather than particularly standing out. On the other hand, its B-movie 1960s vibe, creepy visuals and effective uses of sound help answer the call for the average horror movie fan.
If someone calls me to play Ouija, I’ll counter with a less stressful activity, like skydiving.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.