In 2013’s Oculus, Mike Flanagan made a mirror scary, crafting a dense psychological thriller out of a ubiquitous centerpiece of every household. It seems almost predestined that his path would cross with Ouija. After all, A board of texture paper that “talks to ghosts” certainly didn’t turn any heads when it was put in a CW teen movie a couple of years back. Why not give it to the mirror guy? Particularly when the “mirror guy” is one of the strongest horror directors working right now, with the excellent Netflix bottle film Hush directly behind him, and a possible remake of Halloween ahead.
Ouija: Origin Of Evil takes us all the way back to dear old 1965 and acquaints us with the Zander family. Alice (Elizabeth Reaser), is a “medium” who puts on an elaborate show with her daughters Doris (Lulu Wilson) and Lina (Annalise Basso) to convince people that they are talking to their dead family members. Despite this trickery, Alice genuinely cares about helping people and is looking for new ways to make her act more believable. When Lina sneaks out to a party and is caught playing with an Ouija board, Alice becomes intrigued. It seems as though the board can actually connect to the spirit world. However, this power comes at a price. Doris becomes possessed by something evil and vengeful through the board and starts to lash out in violent ways.
It would have been easy for Flanagan to take this ‘gun for hire’ studio gig and completely phone it in. After all, this would make it’s budget back if it were a ninety minute static shot of hands moving the planchette around. However, he throws everything he has into the aesthetic elements of the film. The 1960s are masterfully re-created not only through production design but with the imagery itself. While they aren’t actually shot on the format, the images all have a very celluloid appearance. There are even a few digital crackles and pops edited in. It’s a loving directorial tribute to the era that doesn’t come off as overtly nostalgic.
The performances from a relatively unknown cast are very strong. Reaser rides the line between hokey drifter and loving mother in fascinating fashion. She knows she’s full of it, but she doesn’t want to be. This genuine conviction makes her compelling, despite the fact that she is very clearly an enabler. Wilson is in fairly standard ‘creepy kid’ territory here, but she hams it up like a champ. However, the real stand-out here is Annalise Basso. Her character is so perfectly keyed into the emotional arc of the audience. She wants to escape this lifestyle so badly, but cannot ever fully abandon her family. Basso gets the meatiest emotional beats, and she shows a lot of promise in them. ET’s Henry Thomas also shows up as a kindhearted priest, but his charm has not aged particularly well. He’s the only one who simply seems to be collecting a check, and the film suffers every time the focus is on him.
Despite all of these well-oiled parts, Origin of Evil falls criminally short in the horror department. Flanagan can’t decide if he’s making a restrained character drama or a campy fright fest, so he half bakes both. Despite some crafty lighting and camera work, the scares are all extremely predictable. They’re the standard jumps and jolts that have dominated every ghost movie for three decades. This monotony is bolstered by some truly awful looking visual effects. To Flanagan’s credit, some of these effects are practical, but they’re all incredibly cheesy. The film plays its hand very early on, showing us the rather goofy looking monster before the story even ramps up. As such, there really isn’t anything to fear, as we know what lies inside Doris would not be out of place in Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed
Meanwhile, there’s a whole lot of melodrama going on. While our actors do the best they can, the dialogue they’re given simply isn’t at their level. It can’t really delve into any serious psychological themes but isn’t satisfied with being simplistic either. As a result, most of the conversations about spirituality and loss feel very ham-handed. In fact, most of the film is so milquetoast that when things take a surprisingly tragic and inventive turn at the end, it doesn’t feel earned.
There is clearly a great deal of love and craftsmanship put into Ouija: Origin Of Evil, and that’s what makes its flatness so frustrating. Try as he might, Flanagan can’t overcome what amounts to a trite premise in any form. There are flashes of his signature style throughout, but they feel much more pulled back and commercial than they should. If he can’t make it work, perhaps no one can. Next time Platinum Dunes considers making one of these, it might be smart to drag the piece to ‘NO.’