Before I discuss Ouija: Origin of Evil, I have to say that I loathed – and I mean loathed – the Ouija movie that Universal released back in 2014. It’s the prime example of PG-13 and cash grab horror at its worst. If I had been unfortunate enough to see it in the theatre two years ago, it’s very likely I would’ve walked out, and this is coming from a guy who prefers not to walk out of screenings because of how much I respect the art. The script is lazy, the cast looks dreadfully bored and regretful to be in it throughout (perhaps because they didn’t read the script before agreeing to be in it), and it’s just not scary. Although the idea of basing a film off of a board game is kind of stupid, they made it work with Clue back in 1985. They could’ve made it work with Ouija, but they were more concerned about how much money they could make instead of making an effective horror film.
Despite my misgivings about Ouija, I will admit it did have a cool backstory (which was way more intriguing than the main storyline), and do think it was wise to do a prequel. It was also wise that the studio enlisted up and coming horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan to craft it. Along with the likes of Ti West, Adam Wingard, and David Robert Mitchell, Mike Flanagan has proven himself to be a talented modern horror filmmaker. His first feature horror film Absentia was released back in 2011, and it was primarily funded through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. His second feature, the mind bending horror film Oculus brought him more attention and acclaim in 2014, and on top of Ouija: Origin of Evil, we’ve seen the release of Hush this year. The future looks good for Flanagan too as two more of his films, Before I Wake and the Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game are slated for release in 2017. And compared to Ouija, Ouija: Origin of Evil is actually compelling and just a better film overall.
Ouija: Origin of Evil follows a widowed mother, Lina Zander (Annalise Basso) and her two daughters, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) and Doris Zander (Lulu Wilson) living in 1967 Los Angeles. Lina runs a scam seance business out of her home to make ends meet, with the help of her daughters. In an attempt to boost business, Lina includes the Ouija board as part of her act, but she unexpectedly invites an evil spirit into her home, which possesses her younger daughter, Doris.
One of the best things about Ouija: Origin of Evil is that it manages to capture the look and the feel of the 60’s effectively without feeling forced. Considering the modest budget of only $9 million, it’s impressive and it goes to show that effective period pieces don’t have to be produced for hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s also reminiscent of Ti West’s 80’s throwback horror film, The House of the Devil, which was released back in 2009. The use of the older Universal logo at the beginning is like the cherry on top of the nostalgia sundae too.
Where Ouija: Origin of Evil also succeeds is with its strong writing that deals with loss and the struggle of the widowed mother. Flanagan has proven before that he can write strong female characters, especially with Hush, which was co-written by his wife, Kate Siegel (who’s also the lead). The character of Alice is great in the sense that she’s a widowed mother who’s conflicted. She knows that running a sham business that exploits the grief of people who’ve lost their loved ones is unethical, but at the same time she’s doing what she can to financially support herself and her daughters. The unexpected loss of someone close and loved like that is relatable to many, and the recovery process is just as difficult to experience. Elizabeth Reaser is convincing in the role of Alice too. Annalise Basso is also solid in the role of Lina, the teenage daughter who’s naturally inclined to rebel and disagree with her mother. Lulu Wilson also turns in a solid performance as Doris, the younger daughter who becomes possessed by the evil spirit that exploits both her curiosity and grief. There’s also a good parallel with the supporting character of Father Tom Hogan (Henry Thomas), a priest who has experienced personal loss himself. He acts as a support system to the Zander family and serves a better role than the character of Mikey, played by Parker Mack. Mikey’s just there to be the love interest of Lina and he’s never really developed much. You know right away how much of a throwaway character he’s going to be and he’s easily the film’s weakest point.
Like with his previous films Absentia and Oculus, Mike Flanagan uses the paranormal element effectively in Ouija: Origin of Evil. Instead of going for cheap jump scares, Flanagan and crew manage to build tension throughout and make it pay off. The spirit the Zander family conjures is downright terrifying because it exploits their loss and grief and choses to use the younger daughter Doris as a vessel. Although you already know the end is going to be bleak based off of what’s revealed in the first film, it’s still compelling and unnerving throughout without ever feeling too predictable.
Overall, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a solid PG-13 horror film and period horror piece. It’s a vast improvement over its predecessor thanks to a much better script and Mike Flanagan’s ambitious vision. If you haven’t seen Ouija, you’re better off skipping it and just watching this prequel instead. Also, you’re probably better off playing a board game that’s not Ouija, except for Monopoly, which is where the real origin of evil lies…