If there is a key genre archetype for the 2010s, such as the slasher revival of the Nineties or the classic monster movies of the Fifties, it is almost certainly the Blumhouse-esque jumpscare heavy ghost story.
Some of these have been fantastic (Such as The Conjuring and Sinister), others… well, less so. One of the more underwhelming of these was 2014’s Ouija, which was pretty average at best. However, it obviously did well-enough with audiences to warrant a follow-up, and despite initial reservations, my interest was piqued when Mike Flanagan, director of Oculus, was attached to the project.
The film has hit UK cinemas today, so is there life after Ouija?
Or is this a franchise that should have stayed buried?
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
Dir: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Parker Mack, Henry Thomas
SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I’ll try not to spoil too much here, but continue at your own risk.
Flanagan’s follow-up to Ouija is actually a prequel, although it holds up well enough as a film in its own right if you haven’t seen the previous movie.
Set in 1967, it is the story of widow Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) who holds fake seances in her home to make ends meet, often assisted by daughters: sweet young Doris (Lulu Wilson) and rebellious teen Paulina (Annalise Basso).
However, when Alice decides to incorporate a Ouija board into their act, Doris thinks she has made contact with her deceased father. At first overjoyed, Alice starts to become suspicious about who, or what, might be communicating with them, when the girls’ headteacher (and her potential love interest), widower Father Tom (Thomas) raises some concerns.
Even headstrong Paulina’s is dragged away from her burgeoning relationship with fellow pupil Mikey (Parker Mack) to re-evaluate what she knows when Doris’ behaviour takes on a steadily more disturbing turn. Finally the family must work together to face the terrifying truth about the board… and the beings beyond it.
THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): I think the most important thing to state in this review is that Ouija: Origin of Evil is a MASSIVE improvement on its lackluster predecessor. If you take one thing from my words, it should be that this is twice the film of the 2014 original.
Director Mike Flanagan proved himself to be a filmmaker to watch with his impressive short film Oculus and the feature-length follow-up, and that skill is again evident here. He knows how to craft a scare — and not just the piano-slam jumpscares that seem prevalent in horror nowadays, but genuine, unsettling creep-outs. However, he also knows how to tell a good story, with characters we actually care about.
The film definitely benefits from its Sixties period-setting, having a kind of Conjuring-lite feel that helps to draw the viewer in. I love horror movies that immerse us in a different time period, so I may well be biased, but this instantly helps the film to stand out from the crowd. With the likes of the aforementioned Conjuring and the retro Eighties charm of Stranger Things being all the vogue at the moment, the throwback charms of Ouija: Origin of Evil come at just the right time.
That the movie is cast with decent actors, rather than shiny, plastic Hollywood teens is also a plus.
The central trio are impressive — both Reaser and Basso are fine actresses (and have the requisite movie star good looks to ensure they’ll go far). Reaser manages to combine a sympathetic vulnerability with the toughness you’d expect of her character, which gives her more depth than your average horror movie lead.
Basso is also excellent (she has serious Scream Queen potential) but I was most blown away by young Wilson. She’s astonishingly good for an actress of such tender years, effortlessly veering between cute and sympathetic and spooky as hell. I know the creepy kid trope has been done to death in horror, but this time it really does work.
Sadly, some of the other characters are given a little less to do (with the exception of the solid and reliable, if unspectacular, Thomas), although the actors play their roles well and the story doesn’t suffer for their inclusion.
This storyline is simple and, as I stated before, is not reliant on knowledge of the original movie. It’s the manner in which this story is told that is the movie’s biggest strength. As those of us who saw the first film already know exactly who will be surviving until the end credits and how/why the others meet their end, a lot of the suspense of the story is snatched away, although I imagine viewers who are new to the story will be legitimately shocked at some of the things that happen late on. It’s difficult to review the plot precisely for this reason — I imagine half the audience will already know all about the Zander family, while others will simply scratch their heads the first time Doris receives the chillingly portentous message from the other side: ‘Hi friend’.
I think writers Flanagan and Jeff Howard do a fine job of walking that fine line, throwing in some nice references to the original film while telling their own story.
Ultimately, the film works because it is atmospheric as can be (and that’s before the always creepy gimmick of viewing the spirits through the lens of the planchette comes into play — spirits brought to spine-tingling ‘unlife’ by creature feature legend Doug Jones), and shows real heart in the family dynamic of the leads. That's right, warmth and chills in one package – bravo Mr Flanagan.
THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Of course, no film is without its flaws and Ouija: Origin of Evil, while better than its predecessor is no exception.
As good as our lead characters are, some of the supporting players are actually pretty pointless in all honesty, existing solely to serve as fodder to the evil spirits late on. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
I also praised the movie for the manner in which it neatly managed to avoid an over-reliance on familiarity with the first flick to tell its story. In fact, this raises its own problem, because at times it directly contradicts some of the established facts from the 2014 film. The relationship between Doris and Alice is quite clearly explained late on in the original movie, as are the events that occur at the climax of this one, and Flanagan and Howard clearly pull a bit of a fast one with the etsablished mythos. Although an argument can be made that the pair do have a legitimate way out due to the mental state of the person telling the story in the first entry of the series. I think it's safe to say that this may irritate any fans of the original, but as they seem pretty few and far between, I can't see that becoming much of an issue here!
One problem that plenty of genre fans had with the trailer for Origin of Evil that arrived a few months ago was the decidedly iffy CGI on display. Sadly, some elements of this are still evident in a couple of key scenes (plus there are some of moments that unintentionally conjure up memories of the LG phone ‘found footage’ ad from last year) but I don't think they're quite poor enough to derail the film from delivering some well-executed frights and a solid 99 minutes of entertainment. In fact, some of those CG effects, especially the distended jaw gag, are considerably better than that same ropy trailer may have led you to believe.
THE VERDICT: In all honesty, I very much doubt that Ouija: Origin of Evil will end up as anybody’s favourite genre flick of the year, but over a 12 month spell in which we’ve had very few squibs, this is another effort that defies expectation to pleasantly surprise. It has a stellar cast, a coherent and creepy story and takes the time to actually deliver genuine tension and frights instead of cheap jumps. It's good enough to warrant checking out and actually proves an even better flick than fellow horror short alumni, David F. Sandberg's Lights Out.
Plus, any film that runs a spot-on Exorcist 3-style jump-scare homage late on has got to be worth your time, right?
Ouija: Origin of Evil is in UK cinemas now. You can read more about the film at its official Facebook page here.
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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.
Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.