Let’s be real here for a second, folks: the first Ouija wasn’t good and very few people enjoyed it. Yet miraculously, it still went on to become a big hit at the box office; and in an era when challenging and original horror fare such as It Follows and The Witch are getting reasonably wide releases, the fact that something as maligned as the original Ouija is what audiences flocked to the most is pretty bizarre. It’s like if people had the chance to nominate Bernie Sanders as a major Presidential candidate, but instead went for Hillary Clint – oh wait, that actually happened too.
But having said that, and completely divorced from any association with the first one (since this is set up as a prequel, one fortunately doesn’t need to have seen the original to follow the timeline here), Ouija: Origin of Evil is surprisingly a pretty enjoyable Halloween season chiller. Among its many virtues, you could say its biggest accomplishment is actually making the premise of a possessed Ouija board seem chilling for at least a short amount of time. Because honestly, in a world where a Donald Trump is the president, a film about a haunted board game made of plastic with the alphabet painted on just doesn’t seem that scary anymore.
Despite the first film amounting to a total bag of dicks, Ouija: Origin of Evil still had some potential to wind up being pretty worthwhile. Mostly because of the talent involved, and extra-mostly because of director Mike Flanagan, who helmed this year’s underrated home invasion thriller Hush, and most notably the pretty damn good Oculus from a few years back. Safe to say, this project was in good hands.
Set in the 1960’s, i.e. decades before the events of the first one, we follow a family of three (a mother and two daughters) where the mother operates a phony fortune telling business where she rationalizes her scam to her daughters by saying it gives people closure and there’s nothing wrong with telling clients what they want to hear. But once a brand new prop comes into play – the titular Ouija board – things eventually start to get a bit hairy, especially when the youngest daughter begins to display an unusual knack for making contact with the other side, which may or may not have troubling consequences for the entire family. In that respect, this film is tonally more of a classic supernatural thriller, rather than a generic teen slasher with a board game as the killer, like the first one was.
As for the cast, we have a trio of talented and capable female performances at the center of this film. Firstly is Oculus alumnus Annalise Basso, who has graduated to a leading role in this whilst only having a minor role in her previous collaboration with the director. Also starring is Elizabeth Reaser as the matriarch of their household, raising her two daughters all by herself and remaining the most grounded of the three performances. Rounding out the major players is Lulu Wilson as the youngest daughter and central possession victim du jour, who largely steals the entire show once the main plot gets underway.
Due to the strengths of this main trio of performers, the much slower and deliberately paced first two-thirds of the film really come across strong, since a lot of the setup is dependent almost entirely on these three characters and their connections with one another. They have a believable and well-defined family dynamic at work here, and it all helps in making the audience legitimately care when things start going south further down the line. Heck, for the first thirty or so minutes, Ouija: Origin of Evil doesn’t even necessarily feel like a pure horror film so much as a fairly ordinary domestic period drama with slight supernatural elements tossed in for good measure – and I mean that in the best possible way.
Third act problems, though. They exist and unfortunately they plague this film to a detriment. After a full hour of slower tension-building sequences and character development, a few well-earned frights and jolts are warranted to be sure. But the transition from what you’ve been conditioned to expect from the first two thirds to suddenly your run-of-the-mill PG-13 Blumhouse joint could’ve been a little smoother. Add to that a parade of toothless, Coke Zero excuses for scares and we’re back in territory that resembles that of the first Ouija, and needless to say, it’s certainly a detractor.
Now don’t get me wrong, Origin of Evil isn’t quite as stubborn as the original in its refusal to be inventive or scary, but it comes close at times; the biggest offender being a completely bloodless instance of someone’s mouth being sewn shut, as well as a painfully forced last second GOTCHA jolt that doesn’t jibe at all with the otherwise surprisingly grim conclusion of the film. Even more insulting is that it comes right after an otherwise perfect opportunity to end the film on an unexpectedly somber, melancholic note and for once leave a contemporary mainstream horror-viewing audience with a feeling other than boredom from a scare we all saw coming from a mile away. Even still, props to Mike Flanagan for at least going with the more unexpected, sour route for this ending – and it’s not a scare that registers as a major hindrance on the film regardless. But a little restraint shown in this area would’ve been much appreciated.
Imagine if there was a sequel to The Last Airbender scheduled for release next summer, and despite initial skepticism from just about everyone in the known universe, the film came out and quality-wise was on the same level as one of the better entries in the Harry Potter franchise – that’s essentially the case here.
Destined to forever live in the shadow of it’s subpar predecessor, Ouija: Origin of Evil holds its own perfectly well as a slick, well-made genre flick and is mercifully detached from any association with the first film, apart from mere superficial elements. Nothing especially new or revolutionary herein, but Mike Flanagan once again gets to exercise his particular set of skills within this very specific subgenre of horror film. It’s a superlative that I never thought would need to be dredged up, but this is probably the best board-game centered film since Jumanji; maybe even Clue. Whether or not that completely random declaration has any substance or anything is entirely up to you.