Not too long ago, I featured the original Ouija in one of my weekly #ThrowbackThursday features. Though I liked Olivia Cooke as the lead, I found upon this repeat viewing that the film oddly mimicked the basic structure and story points of a very popular all-time horror classic.
Upon seeing the trailer for Ouija: Origin of Evil, it was clear that Warner Brothers knew that the Ouija angle was a good one but that audiences expected more from the idea than a typical teen thriller. Ouija boards have a very real and widespread reputation and I know several people personally who have had frightening experiences with them. If those feelings and experiences aren’t being translated to the screen in an equally horrifying way, then it’s quite frankly a waste of the property.
So, this prequel to that 2014 film has a completely different creative team, led by director and co-writer (along with Jeff Howard) Mike Flanagan. You may not immediately recognize his name but Flanagan has a pretty sturdy reputation among horror geeks, already, having also directed and co-written the well-reviewed and received Oculus and, more recently, the Netflix film Hush. In addition, he’s currently at work on a film adaptation of the Stephen King thriller Gerald’s Game. Quite a respectable body of work for someone who’s really only just getting started.
Origin of Evil is unquestionably an improvement upon its predecessor. In fact, I can’t immediately recall another sequel that is this significantly superior to the original in its series. While the film isn’t entirely devoid of some elements that we’ve seen before in other horror films, it’s also nothing approaching a clone of any other film, in particular, either.
The movie is essentially a possession story, which has become a pretty popular trend over the last decade or so, to various degrees of success. There are echoes of some of the more successful films from that subgenre, but there’s enough fresh material and ingenuity for the film to attain its own identity.
The film’s biggest asset is its sophistication and maturity. We get to know the family at the center of the events and, though flawed, we come to care for them. If a horror film fails to get the audience invested in its protagonist(s), then that horror film fails, period. That’s not an issue, here. Flanagan takes great care to write and then cast the principles properly, dedicating enough time to fleshing them out that they feel real and believable without making the film feel like it drags before the “good stuff” starts to happen. These attributes make Ouija a good film, proper, before worrying about also making it a good horror film.
And, don’t worry; it’s a great horror film! Complementing the well-laid foundation is the excellently structured horror narrative. Flanagan doesn’t wait long to get into the supernatural activity. But he also doesn’t give away too much, too soon. The pacing is perfect, and he stays true to the basic “the-less-seen-the-scarier” template that almost never fails. Once things pick up and the audience is a bit more privy to what’s actually going on, the beautifully-timed scares and deeply disturbing visuals don’t stop. With only a couple of exceptions, these are unpredictable and, for me, often unimaginably unsettling.
I can’t get into details without spoilers, but I’ll say I had a bit of an issue swallowing part of the logic behind how to ultimately defeat the spirit. However, as the climax continues to unfold, an explanation is presented, though not explicitly laid out. So, if you see the film and come to a moment where you’re thinking that something doesn’t make sense, give it a few more minutes.
Ouija: Origin of Evil doesn’t quite have the depth or layers of The Conjuring 2, but it’s pretty easily my second-favorite horror film of the year. And that’s in a year that’s been stacked with solid horror films. Story and character take front-and-center while mood, atmosphere, and imaginative visuals pack the punch that’s necessary for an effective horror film. Whether you prefer jump scares or creep scares, you’ll get your fix, while also getting a story about a family struggling to survive both literally and metaphorically. The cast rises above what’s expected of them (Annalise Basso as Lina takes particular advantage of an opportunity towards the end of the film) and Mike Flanagan and his crew never talk down to the audience. No need to consult the spirits; Ouija: Origin of Evil is an easy recommendation for horror films of all types.
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