It's Always More Than a Game, Kiddos: Safe "Ouija" only scary if you're 13

Ouija (2014) 
88 min., rated PG-13.

The first horror property from Hasbro and likely the last, "Ouija" starts with a neat nugget of an idea that a spooky slumber party-ready game board can be used to contact the dead. Not since 1986's cheesy-great "Witchboard" has there been a film tapping into the superstitious tomfoolery revolving around the spirit board, so one hoped for the best. Now, as everyone knows, a PG-13 horror film is like sex without nudity, and while not every genre pic getting a bum rap from the MPAA ratings system spinelessly belongs in a vacuum for being literally bloodless, there have been far more duds2005's "Boogeyman," 2005's "White Noise," 2006's "Pulse," 2008's "One Missed Call," 2008's "Prom Night," 2009's "The Unborn," 2009's "The Stepfather," just to name a fewthan slam dunks2002's "The Ring," 2009's "Drag Me to Hell," 2011's "Insidious," 2012's "The Woman in Black"—to count. Just in time for Halloween, one could probably do a whole lot worse than "Ouija," a not-so-bad but discouragingly tame horror effort that is clearly aimed at an under-17 demo, but seasoned moviegoers will need more than a textbook jump scare from a gas stove burner turning on by itself.

After teenager Debbie (Shelley Hennig) is found dead in her family home in what appears to be a suicide, grief-stricken Laine (Olivia Cooke) just can't wrap her head around why her best friend would take her life. When Debbie's parents ask Laine to housesit, she finds the Ouija board from their childhood in Debbie's bedroom. In hopes of contacting their best friend, Laine convinces boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), rebellious sister Sarah (Ana Coto), diner-waitress pal Isabelle (Bianca Santos), and Debbie's boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) to gather in Debbie's house and hold a séance by using the witchboard. Naturally, the spirit that starts moving the planchette to different letters on the board is not their friend, despite the spelling of "Hi Friend." One by one, Laine and her pals are most likely on their way out, too.

Debuting director Stiles White and wife/co-writer Juliet Snowden (2012's "The Possession") set things off on a decent start, suggestively building up to the first kill before framing it in a stylish fashion (we'll just say it involves a long strand of twinkle lights). At a certain point, though, White starts resorting to anything to keep teenyboppers jumping out of their seats, like half-hearted false-alarm scares where characters enter a room, walking on cat's feet, only to scare the living bejesus out of another character and, hopefully by proxy, the audience. A few times, this tactic is benign and fun in how it keeps the reflexes alive, but it's just indicative of the general laziness in mainstream studio horror releases from filmmakers trying to get their foot in the door. While White and Snowden's screenplay does establish the rules of the Ouija board (you can never play alone, you cannot play in a graveyard, and you must always say goodbye), the wishy-washy ending ensures a sequel, or just a lack of imagination, by not settling on how to actually destroy the all-powerful board. Other writing issues? Convenient for the plot, Laine and Sarah's father (Matthew Settle) is gone on a business trip for the remainder of the film, never to return, and Debbie's parents have left town immediately after their daughter's funeral, leaving Laine to check on the house every so often and use the dining room table for the setting of the séance. Also, Laine and Sarah's Hispanic grandmother Nona (Vivis Colombetti, "Paranormal Activity 2") then suddenly has a degree in everything with the paranormal. 

Olivia Cooke (TV's "Bates Motel" and this year's "The Quiet Ones") gives her role of Laine some concern and more layers than what were probably written. Shelley Hennig (TV's "Teen Wolf") is on hand to kick the plot off as the Ouija board's first victim and shows off her charisma in footage from a computer flash drive Laine finds. The pressing question is, why would anyone record themselves doing chores and using a Ouija board? Exactly. No one. As for the rest of the pretty, right-out-of-Central-Casting actors, including Douglas Smith, Daren Kagasoff (TV's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"), Bianca Santos (TV's "The Fosters"), and newcomer Ana Coto, they take Debbie's death in stride and aren't given enough time to fill out their insipid, underdeveloped characters beyond props. Both "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream" handled a circle of high school friends dropping like flies much better. Only the dependably kooky and very welcome Lin Shaye, turning up as a woman in a psychiatric hospital, comes close to making this whole enterprise more fun. Casting directors might have figured you can't keep a wacky medium down; Shaye's character was killed in "Insidious," only to return in "Insidious: Chapter 2" and the upcoming "Insidious: Chapter 3."

Professionally packaged and atmospherically lit, "Ouija" pulls out a modicum of effective moments, one involving a rolling flashlight in an attic, a nighttime attack with a hungry pool cover, and then some ghostly imagery in the film's total of two climaxes existing in the basement of Debbie's home. On the other hand, why do so many contemporary supernatural horror movies mine the jolt of a shrieking specter opening its mouth and running toward the camera? Though it doesn't say much for the actual film itself, the fact that it exists might resurrect popularity in Ouija boards and be the cause of a decline in teenagers flossing (that pre-bedtime regimen gets turned into a nightmare here). Unless ticket buyers are horror-movie virgins, no one will be made a chicken of through much of this temporarily startling, though never-chilling "boo" exercise. Raise the dead somewhere else.

Grade: C