This week’s screening schedule forced what seemed initially a difficult decision in that the two wide releases played against one another on the same fateful night. Though I was only a mild fan of the first, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back offered Tom Cruise (of whom my readers will know I am a lifelong fan) a chance to get back in cahoots with Tom McQuarry (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). Ouija: Origin of Evil had a very different pull. Ironically, I had lamented the inevitability of its creation when handing out a D- to McG’s fetid attempt to turn the chilling board game to movie form. And yet Mike Flanagan, director of Oculus and just earlier this year Hush, is as seductive a marque name as any when it comes to the horror genre and I just couldn’t help but give over to the spirit of October and throw my chips in with the scarier offering. Turns out, it was a great choice.
Completely abandoning everything from the first film, Ouija: Origin of Evil quickly establishes the fact that poppa’s got a brand new bag. And that bag is actually pretty awesome. A more polar opposite venture from what McG created there could not be. From go, Ouija: Origin of Evil taps into the kind of sinister atmospherics that McG never once managed, using The Newton Brother’s eerie score to heighten the anticipation and sharpen the eventual squeals without giving itself over too much to self-seriousness and finding plenty of room for uncomfortable but effective laughs along the way. Not without plenty of startling moments, Flanagan’s pictures do not necessarily resort to jump scares but there’s something to be said about the way he conjures up the expectation for a sudden surprise. After all, true horror is in the waiting, not the action itself. Flanagan frames almost every single shot to convey a sense of unease, to prime in us the expectation of a quick lurch or a terrifying emergent demon. The fear builds. Slowly but surely. And when he unleashes, the effect is all the greater for the prior restraint.
Flanagan’s Ouija begins with the Zander family, or the remainder of the family at least. Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is a recent widow, living in a solid colonial with her two headstrong but wounded daughters. Together, they scam locals with not-so-legit séances using the power of custom furniture. Though her methods may be questionable, Alice’s intentions are pure enough: she wants to aid those dealing with grief by providing closure and comfort. Not unlike the attempts she makes with her daughters. Her operation is effective enough, and employs said offspring Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) to do some behind-the-scenes tinkering to further legitimize the commune with the dead, but with a hot new game called Ouija on the market, there’s not a ton of business flowing in and out the doors. So Alice buys a Ouija board.
In an attempt to communicate with her deceased dad, Doris quickly breaks one of the cardinal rules of the Ouija: never play alone. In doing so, a malicious spirit invades her little frame, pretending to be her father and turning her into a vessel for bad things. Like most possessions, she’s soon writing in Polish, speaking in foreign tongues and rolling her eyes back in her head as she watches a static-ridden television. You know, your average run-of-the-mill creepy as fuck kinda stuff. Some of the material is reminiscent of The Conjuring 2 but the strengths lay in different places. Both are simple, effective and unrelenting. Both feature possessed young girls with surprisingly solid performers. But Ouija manages an even more streamlined venture and offers even darker shades than James Wan’s does.
And while Reaser and Basso make for compelling and uncharacteristically complex horror movie heroines, the young Wilson is quite simply a revelation. She is equal parts adorbz and pure terror – the Linda Blair of 2016. Whether, she’s creepily oogling a blank wall or diatribing to Paulina’s new beau Mikey (Parker Mack) about the intricacies of what it feels like to be strangled to death, Wilson absolutely steals the scene. When she’s eventually crawling across walls or hanging jaw a la The Mummy’s Imhotep, she’s more than merely a frightening vessel and that’s in large part due to Wilson’s ability to balance the dramatic needs of the role in with the effortlessly scary nature of what it is she’s doing.
As the movie ducks into the third act, shit goes haywire. As in, I cannot believe how dark this gets. Think The Mist or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Think night terrors and restless sleep. When all is said and done, you’ll likely be asking yourself how Ouija: Origin of Evil secured a PG-13 rating. Because seriously, this is some grim material boys and girls. But Flanagan handles the transition tactfully from the giggle-loaded second act to the nightmarish third and leaves on a bold note that I fully don’t expect anyone to really see coming. Just like we never expected this movie to be any good, let alone maybe kinda even great.
CONCLUSION: ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ is an awesome rarity in that it’s an excellent sequel to a truly horrible original film. Mike Flanagan (Hush, Oculus) mixes uncomfortable comedy with legitimate scares like a master while breakout star Lulu Wilson gives a performance sure to make you uneasy for days to come.