OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL

Completely studio driven horror films are usually nothing but trash. I don’t think one person in the world was begging for a follow-up to 2014’s allegedly awful Ouija. It did make a lot of money, though, so of course Universal was quick to get a sequel, or in this case, a prequel, coughed up. Lucky for them, they hired director Jeff Flanagan and his writing buddy Jeff Howard for the task. Their last film Oculus was one of my favorite horror films of 2013 and no doubt the best killer mirror movie of all time. It was clever, fun, and messed with your head quite a bit. These are horror filmmakers who actually care about quality filmmaking first and foremost. Ouija: Origin of Evil is one of those horror ideas that seems terrible from the beginning, but talent surrounding it made me reluctantly interested in checking it out.

In Ouija: Origin of Evil, the year is 1967 and widowed Lisa Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) makes end’s meet by scamming desperate people with promises of them contacting their dead loved ones via séances. As business booms less and money gets tighter, she purchases a Ouija board to assist with the her scams. Little does she know, she’s invited evil into her home and that evil is beginning to take hold of her life, house, and family.

Flanagan and Howard understand that horror films don’t have to be generic garbage. They prove here, and with Oculus, that you can tell a relatable, well developed story with some horror thrown in. I was actually fully invested in the story and the characters here. However, this wouldn’t have had the same effect, if it wasn’t for the absolutely fantastic cast. Nine-year old Lulu Wilson absolutely steals the show. She’s creepy, funny, and adorable, all at the same time. For being so young, she shows a decent amount of range, going from sweet and innocent in some scenes, to malicious in the next. With a lesser (i.e. annoying) child actress, this would have been nowhere near as enjoyable. She’s paired with Annalise Basso, who plays her older sister, turning in a very natural performance. She very realistically goes from easily conveying fear, to determination, to shock, giving us the most sentimental and well rounded character. Elizabeth Reaser does a wonderful job portraying a grieving mother trying to keep her life and family together. You could clearly feel her pain in every scene, coupled with her desperate hope that everything in her life wil hopefully get better. Each character is well defined and they all have fantastic chemistry with each other, feeling like a real family. Bravo to everybody involved for actually making people trying to communicate to spirits via Ouija board emotionally investing and satisfying.

For as invested in the story I was, I couldn’t help but get distracted by the directing. Mike Flanagan constantly had the camera panning around characters, zooming in and out, and just didn’t seem to keep still. I understand this a slow moving, dialogue heavy film. He wanted to keep the visuals from getting stale, but it mostly ended up being distracting. I just wanted the camera operator to relax once in a while. While his visuals were occasionally annoying, he absolutely got this film right in the tone department. I don’t find possessed children scary in the slightest, so when you do that, I’m usually going to find it hilarious. Flanagan chose to go with a campy tone, almost giving the film a Sam Raimi effect to it. It mostly worked, making me delightfully giggle throughout, but I was also weirded out by the sometimes bizarre imagery and dark comedy. It was a perfect balance to the drama. I was never scared, but I had a lot of fun.

But like a lot of promising horror films, this one nearly falls apart for me in the third act. While the first hour is basically a family drama with supernatural elements, the last half hour falls into the typical genre traps. It’s almost as if the filmmakers felt they needed to appease the people (or studio) who wanted their generic horror fare, as well. Once the stock priest character strolls into their home and starts laying down the convoluted exposition, the film started losing me. The drama and the characters take a backseat to generic haunted house clichés, with characters starting to be killed off, possessed children crawling on the walls, and a sudden increase in jump scares. It felt like they either didn’t know how to end it, or tried too hard to appeal to the PG-13 horror crowd at the end. It reminded me of how the final act of Insidious ruined the entire film, although this is nowhere near egregious, as it’s more tonally consistent and emotionally investing.

Some films are simply much better than they really have any right to be. There’s absolutely no reason why Ouija: Origin of Evil, a prequel to an apparently terrible film based off of a board game, should actually be good. It just shows what happens when you get good filmmakers behind the scenes. Good filmmakers who actually want to tell an engrossing story, while also creeping us out. This is one of the last horror films to be released in 2016, which has been a surprisingly strong year for horror. Yeah, studios will want to keep pumping out cheap horror flicks until the end of time, but if more caring filmmakers end up being hired to make them, then it could be a bright future. Let’s see what we can get next.

6.5/10

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