Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson
Vue Exeter might want to scrutinise their admissions policy. Given that this is a 15 certificate film, I haven’t shared a cinema with so many children since The Good Dinosaur. I even got kicked in the head for my trouble when a particularly effective jump scare led a hyperactive foot in my direction. But damn if it wasn’t all surprisingly worth it. Against all reason and expectation this prequel that nobody asked for is one of the best Hollywood horrors of the last few years. Almost up there with James Wan’s own superior franchise builder The Conjuring 2.
The first film – Stiles White’s Ouija – was a justly forgettable affair, and under other circumstances everything would have been left as is. But this is a Hasbro tie-in with Michael Bay producing, so regardless of quality further films must follow. But fortune has smiled crookedly upon Ouija. With the significant help of director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) something special has been created, believe it or not.
Flanagan and co-screenwriter Jeff Howard have clearly looked at the derivative material that’s landed in their laps and decided not just to cash a cheque, but to do their damnedest to raise the game. It’s worked. Ouija: Origin Of Evil is smarter, wittier and a hell of a lot scarier than its forbearer, making cinemagoers this Halloween very, very lucky indeed.
Following a throwback Universal logo and delightfully retro title card, we’re advised that we’re back in 1967. Same house as before, only this time home to the Zander family. Alice (Elizabeth Reaser, cherishing a deserved lead role) and her daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) make scant money conning patrons with a mocked-up fortune-teller routine, but when Alice buys a Ouija board events in the house take a turn. 9-year-old Doris grows increasingly attuned to genuine spirits sharing their living space. Soon their parlor tricks aren’t necessary any longer. Doris seems capable of the real deal, channeling the dead to deliver their final messages.
Watching all of this from across his desk is school principal and man of the cloth Father Tom (Henry Thomas [yes, from E.T.!]). That rare thing in horror nowadays; a good priest. Tom grows concerned for the well-being of Alice’s daughters, and his intervention is entirely justified. As Lina is increasingly discovering herself, the spirits working through her sister are nowhere near as benevolent as they claim to be.
Flanagan lets the audience in on this long before his characters get an inkling, making us feel like hapless voyeurs to a car crash that’s happening in slow motion (more-so for anyone who actually remembers this back story from White’s film). But for a while at least the mood is kept endearingly playful. The viewer is invited to laugh and the jokes are funny. There’s a warm heart beating here which is crucial. It gets us invested. Flanagan’s brief history of horror thus far has been built on the simple, successful premise of asking the audience to care. He values character, in particular familial relationships. The populous of Origin Of Evil might not be exceptionally original themselves, but they’re appealing. You want the Zanders to be okay.
As soon as Flanagan has achieved this, he’s got you in his pocket, so when he starts turning the screws in the film’s second half, things get pretty scary pretty quickly. This amounts to many of the usual quiet-loud-quiet-loud tricks you’ve come to expect, as well as the tried and tested two-fakeouts-followed-by-a-real-one formula, but the warmth early on pays dividends in making these gimmicks work. His penchant for making unnatural adjustments to eyes and mouths carries over from Oculus to even greater effect and, cunningly, Flanagan throws a few less well-worn techniques into the mix. At one point he dares to open a scene with everything turned up to 11. It’s a bracing cut-to that’ll have people gripping their armrests whether they want to our not.
Production value is solid and the cast sell it well. Reaser has spent years as a character actor, and she approaches Alice with the same passion as any other role. Basso has worked with Flanagan before on Oculus and is developing into a dependable young presence, while considerable credit must also go to fledgling starlet Wilson, who has a lot to do here as Doris and proves quite sensationally up to the task. Yes, it’s all a bit silly if you deliberately pull yourself out of the movie. But why the hell would you want to go and do a stupid thing like that? Origin Of Evil is really entertaining if you just let it take you.
It’s a shame then that things get a bit bogged down in the final act as the sense of obligation to film one sets in. An otherwise self-satisfying possession story in its own right slowly starts contorting into something less convincingly shaped in an effort to join itself constructively to it’s older sibling. Some of the story beats feel a bit forced here and possession becomes a shorthand tool for some bluntly out-of-character behaviour required to fill in the cracks.
More promising is some cannily applied exposition just prior to this which suggests the Ouija series could actually perpetuate with further prequels, dancing darkly into the past further with every future installment. It’s an intriguing notion to see a horror franchise build itself in reverse like this and one can only hope that, should such a project get the green light, someone as adept as Mike Flanagan is around to ensure quality isn’t sacrificed. If he does move on then whoever’s up next has a tough act to follow.