Ouija: Origin Of Evil Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard
Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Doug Jones
Produced By Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Jason Blum, Brian Goldner, Stephen Davis
Studio: Universal Pictures
Release date: October 21, 2016
Ouija: Origin of Evil is co-produced by Blumhouse Productions and is the prequel to the 2014 film Ouija directed by Stiles White. Despite appearing to be a cheesy cash grab, with a no-name group of young good looking actors, the original film netted an impressive $50-plus million on a minuscule $5 million budget, thus guaranteeing the inevitable follow-up (in this case, a prequel). The film was panned critically and received a laughable 7% on Rotten Tomatoes. But then something happened that turned the prospect of enduring a second Ouija film from a chore to a bevy of possibilities. That something, or rather someone, is Mike Flanagan. Flanagan is one of the best unknown horror directors today. His three horror films so far — Absentia (2011), Oculus (2013) and Hush (2016) — all manage to avoid genre cliches, while simultaneously redefining what fans know and expect from horror films. Knowing he was directing this movie made me excited to see it. I cannot believe I am writing this, but… Ouija: Origins Of Evil is not just one of the best horror film of 2016, but may actually be one of the year’s best films overall.
I need to start by describing the crowd’s reaction to this film. Earlier this year, a friend and I had Robert Eggers’ The Witch ruined by a terrible movie crowd. Horror and comedy are the only genres that truly evoke crowd response throughout a film and sometimes the audience can impact the film’s overall aesthetic quality. The crowd for Ouija: Origin Of Evil SCREAMED in fear for 90-plus minutes. I can honestly say in all my years of attending horror films, I’ve never heard a theater react that way. They were putty in Flanagan’s hands. When the film ended, the hallway outside the theater was one of hysterical relief. People were laughing and exhausted from the ordeal they were put through.
Flanagan uses old-fashioned introductions to frame the movie set in Los Angeles, 1967. There, the Zander family work together in an elaborate scheme performing fake seances for sad people looking to make contact with their dearly departed. Mom Alice (Elizabeth Reaser), and daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and little Doris (Lulu Wilson) live and work in a huge house that feels quite empty. For the first 20-30 minutes we get something highly uncommon in today’s horror, let alone in sequels/prequels/remakes… character development. We are given legitimate reason to care about these women. There is genuine emotion to their story. The girls lost their father, Alice her husband, to a drunk driver. They are in danger of losing the family house. Lina is coming of age and starting to rebel in ways a good kid thinks are bad. And 9-year-old Doris prays to Daddy every night, rather than God. Everyone is wounded, but strong, and the three actresses are all fantastic, especially Lulu Wilson who has to endure some freaky stuff and deliver some chilling scenes. Like Oculus, there is a thick veil of family tragedy shrouded in the possession story.
We are introduced to the dreaded game board early in the film, but that scene is a decoy, a set up played for laughs by Flanagan who saves the scares for later while developing his characters and making us care about them and their motivations. He doesn’t make great “horror movies,” he just makes great movies. Cash grab horror like the original Ouija or Annabelle don’t offer much of a reason to care about characters; rather, they line up them like pigs for the slaughter.
Alice picks up a brand new Ouija board to add to her “act.” If you watched the trailers for the film, then you know what happens next because as usual, trailers show way too much. Doris is possessed by a demonic spirit unleashed from the board. She starts conducting the seances on her own, the planchette moves on its own, and Doris starts speaking in the voices of adults. Lina is convinced there is something terribly wrong and goes to Father Tom (Henry Thomas) for help. He’s another intriguing character. Like the ladies, he is a damaged but good souled and he works to build a convincing relationship with each member of the Zander family.
I cannot go deeper into the plot without spoiling it, but please rest assured that the reveals are interesting, the characters’ motivations are well thought out, and there isn’t a single dumb horror cliche in the movie… okay, maybe one, but again, it’s in the previews.
The scares are real. I heard one person outside compare it to The Conjuring 2 in style and substance, but I thought this managed to out-Conjuring The Conjuring 2. In fact, the film evokes memories of… dare I say… The Exorcist. Flanagan brings the terror from every possible angle including some absolutely awesome sequences in the film’s final act. One in particular is on my list of favorite horror scenes, just because I never saw anything like it, and didn’t see it coming. I am so happily surprised, and by a movie that I had zero interest in seeing originally. In a year which has seen a rebirth in quality horror with The Conjuring 2, Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, The Shallows, and more, I never would have predicted Ouija: Origin Of Evil to be the film that provided the most entertaining and thrilling theater experience. Then again, being a fan of the director, I shouldn’t really be that surprised.
Ouija: Origin Of Evil debuts in theaters October 21, 2016.