Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
99 min., rated PG-13.
An occult parlor board game used to contact the dead at slumber parties was an ominous idea not satisfactorily fulfilled in 2014’s slick, harmlessly hokey but wholly forgettable “Ouija.” With indie writer-director Mike Flanagan, one of the horror genre’s top filmmakers to watch after 2016’s sensational “Hush,” now at the helm, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is able to right a lot of the wrongs of the first film. It was tamed by its PG-13 rating and only employed the most tepid-to-cut-rate frights to scare 13-year-olds into their sleeping bags. This prequel still retains a seemingly wimpy PG-13, but making a difference is that it is actually unsettling without relying on gore and has been expertly directed without the air of a work-for-hire effort. With this fresh start marrying the innocent with the horrifically wicked, all signs point to an improvement for the Hasbro-branded “mystifying oracle” and the reputation of horror follow-ups.
It’s Los Angeles, 1967. After the death of her husband, widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) has had to raise her two girls, high school sophomore Lina (Annalise Basso) and 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson). She runs a business out of her home—some might call it a scam—as a fortune teller, welcoming paying clients who want to communicate with their late loved ones and hopefully giving them peace. Lina and Doris assist their mother in making sure the séance readings go off without a hitch, until Lina opines that their tricks are getting a bit stale. Once Alice brings a Ouija board into the house as a new prop, Doris begins playing with the planchette to talk to Daddy. As Alice learns her youngest can act as a conduit to the spirit world, she keeps Doris from school, which alerts Principal Father Hogan (Henry Thomas). Pretty soon, Doris is channeling the powers of something far more evil.
Both a period piece and a possession chiller, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is also something of an origin story, set almost 50 years before the 2014 teenybopper flick which introduced Paulina Zander, played by the overqualified Lin Shaye. By filling in the backstory of the Zander family and their “wonderful talking board" and remaining consistent with the series, writer-director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard (2013’s “Oculus”) can’t completely disregard the Stiles White-directed first film. Without comparing the two films too much, the filmmaking is far from lazy and generic and with a clearly singular vision on display. There is a much greater concentration on character this time around instead of watching boringly pretty teenagers get picked off in one-by-one fashion. The scare tactics are rarely of the false variety with bombastic musical stings (only one nightmare sequence was counted and no character sneaks up on another). Even working on a brand within the studio system, director Flanagan actually knows how to toy with an audience’s expectations on occasion, resisting the predictable jolt when it’s expected. And, rather than noticeably cutting corners to appease a wider crowd, he demonstrates restraint when needed.
If it weren’t for characters we gave a hoot about and were written with lives outside of the narrative, the horror would hold less impact and suspense would be nil. Filmmaker Flanagan knows this and gives his actors more meat to work with. Before now, Elizabeth Reaser has never been given the major screen role that she deserves. A beacon of warmth and sympathy, Reaser is wonderful as Alice Zander; she will do anything for her two girls and does truly believe that her fortune-telling work could do some good for other people in grief. The stakes are also high when the family receives a foreclosure notice on their doorstep. As Lina, Annalise Basso (who previously worked with the director on “Oculus”) is just as strong, and then there’s Lulu Wilson (2014’s “Deliver Us from Evil”) as Doris. Incredibly effective once the precocious girl becomes a vessel for evil, Wilson sells it as creepily well as any acting veteran could; her monologue to Lina's unsuspecting senior crush (Parker Mack), telling him how it feels to be strangled, is seriously chilling. Finally, Henry Thomas provides more emotional depth than most post-“Exorcist” priest roles as Father Tom Hogan, the principal of the girls’ Catholic school who has lost his spouse, too.
Before any of the serious chills, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” taps into the playful giddiness one might actually feel when pushing the Ouija planchette around with a group of pals. Lina is first introduced to the spirit board at a friend’s house, against the wishes of one of them who is very easily spooked, making for some quite funny results. As actual horror is concerned, there is plenty that unnerves, whether it be a look through the planchette, to a disturbing school-recess incident aimed at Doris’ bully with a slingshot. Also, the sight of the supernatural entity taking over Doris’ body, starting with widening her mouth like putty, is hair-raisingly sinister. The cherry on top of a horror film that is both smart and scary is when it is this classily constructed with loving late-’60s period detail and elegant camera techniques; an era-appropriate Universal Pictures logo and a scratchy title card with a copyright at the bottom that kick off the film are nice touches. This being a contemporary horror film, the film isn’t completely free of jump scares, which take a certain timing and finesse to really work. When there are too many, the surprise trick of the jump scare can be laughable and even exasperating, but in this case, Flanagan uses them sparingly and places them with proper care and timing that even a handful of them are real doozies. If only every supernatural horror film with a colon and subtitle could prosper like “Ouija: Origin of Evil” when it’s handled with style and jittery, devilishly fun inspiration.