Director – Mike Flanagan
Cast – Annalise Basso, Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Halle Charlton, Alexis G. Zall, Doug Jones, Kate Siegel, Sam Anderson
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Like most people, I was not happy to hear of an additional film being added to the Ouija franchise. As one of 2015’s worst films, I had no interest in watching this prequel until I saw who was attached to direct. Mike Flanagan has emerged as a household name these last few years thanks to his success with Oculus and Hush, so genre fans were faced with an interesting scenario here. Could a solid director save a lowly franchise, or would they just offset and leave us with mediocrity? This is why I decided to give it a watch. Flanagan definitely improved on its predecessor, delivering good atmosphere, decent shocks, and a much better storyline. While I personally would not watch this again, this should be a worthwhile effort for the majority of moviegoers wanting a good horror film on the big screen.
Set in 1965 Los Angeles, the widowed Alice Zander and her two girls make ends meet by scamming grieving people with fake séances. When they add a Ouija board to strengthen their façade, they inadvertently expose the youngest daughter to an unrelenting spirit tied to the home’s haunted past.
Flanagan and his Oculus / Before I Wake co-writer Jeff Howard pen this piece, which is an immediate improvement over the previous material. While I was aware this would be set in the past I was unaware that this would be a prequel in direct relation to the original film, namely the Zander family. The story kicks off with insight to the family’s struggles. After the sudden death of the father, they were left with few options to pay bills, which is what lead to their supernatural scamming services. Alice, enlisting the labor of her two girls, doesn’t see anything wrong with what they are doing. When she ups the ante by bringing in the Ouija board they break one of the board’s cardinal rules, which is what leads to the youngest daughter Doris’ insidious possession. At first, Doris’ abilities seem to come with good. She claims to speak with her father and provides details that only he could know. Instead of fearing over what could come through the door they just opened, Alice decides to run with this and uses her daughter as a successful business asset. Little does she know, every interaction with the spirit world leads Doris’ closer to losing her soul to the merciless spirit that is manipulating her.
Eventually, the fun is over and we begin to see that dark turn that Doris is going through. Her mother is somehow oblivious to this, but the writers are careful to not paint her as a bad mother. She is loving, caring, and ultimately allows her greed to get the better of her as desperate times have called for desperate measures. It is either this or they live on the street. Doris’ sister Lina (Lin Shaye’s character in the first film) is the one to notice that something is not right, and she enlists the help of the priest headmaster at her school. The priest is portrayed by Henry Thomas, who some may remember as the star of E.T. The Extraterrestrial. Throw in a slight love interest in Lina’s gentleman caller Mikey and you have the film’s protagonists.
The horror grows insidiously and as a demon possession film you already know what to expect. Things start off tame, but Doris’ transformation begins to take full control over her. Despite a priest and a demon we do not see any exorcism scenes here, which I actually found to be a breath of fresh air. You will still see some other clichés, like speaking in demonic voices and crawling on walls, but I did not mind that. These scenes hit at just the right intervals thanks to good pacing that keeps the film from ever dragging. It may not be that scary for you, but the flick should at least deliver enough horror for those who scare easily. I was most impressed with the writers’ gutsy use of characters. What I mean by that is they leave nobody safe from being killed by Doris. There are characters that add to the plot and will naturally lead viewers to feel they are safe, but Flanagan and Howard take a full-frontal approach to that. I really enjoyed this as it allowed the horror to have a stronger effect on the viewer. The film’s third act is explosive, with several deaths and plenty of horror to enjoy. It ultimately leads up to a climax that is somewhat enjoyable, just be sure to stick around for a post-credits scene that plays into the Ouija film of 2015.
Flanagan’s direction is the film’s biggest selling point, excelling in every element over the previous effort. He begins with awesome atmosphere and succeeds at finding a creepy location for the Zander home. Lowly-lit and adorned with shadows around every corner, you can once again rely on his atmosphere, which has always been a strong suit in his films. He executes the characters well and achieves a great performance from the young Lulu Wilson (Deliver Us From Evil) as Doris. I normally dislike how kids are used in supernatural films because they are often delivered in utterly cliché fashion. Doris does not reinvent the wheel here and is sure to exhibit some of these same clichés. The difference is she is damn good and Flanagan found the right way to use her. His execution of the horror itself is pretty good, with the only caveat being this is a PG-13 flick. Sure there are good PG-13 flicks out there, but the limitations are always noticeable and it shows with Flanagan’s filmography. His best films are his R-rated efforts. Nonetheless, he managed to take the usual clichés and improve on them to give us some decent chills. I loved the look of the possessed Doris that we see later on in the film, which seemed to have some J-horror undertones that have since been forgotten in American horror. In not shying away from killing off some major characters Flanagan also does not shy away from their deaths. I loved his full-frontal approach to these scenes and found this approach necessary in order to make this PG-13 effort hit a little harder. I think most of us going into this piece are doing so to see if an up-and-coming genre filmmaker can improve on a maligned franchise, and it seems Flanagan succeeded at that. He may not be up-and-coming anymore – he is here to stay.
Overall, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a surprisingly good flick thanks to a solid story and good direction. It’s rating will keep it somewhat tame, but for those who scare easily or want a better-than-average wide release horror film, this is up your alley.