The prequel. Few in film fandom enjoy the sound of that word. It usually signifies a kind of creative emptiness of producers and studio suits desperate to continue a franchise but unable to find a screenwriter to work the last entry in the series into a legitimate follow-up. So, instead, we go backward in the story, betting that audiences won’t notice that they already know how everything ends and never really care how they got there in the first place.
This means that such a film already has a strike against it. It must stand out yet fit in and work as a stand-alone while sliding effortlessly into the existing mythology. It almost never works, but when it does, you marvel at the moviemaking mantle involved. Horror maestro du jour Mike Flanagan has a well-earned reputation with titles like Hush (2016), Absentia (2011), and Oculus (2013) under his belt. Given the challenge of bringing the haunted Hasbro board game Oujia back for another round of scares, the good news is that Ouija: Origin of Evil is very good. The bad news? It’s still a set-up for some very mediocre things to come.
The story is the standard “meddling in the wrong realm” narrative, with people playing with supernatural fire and getting a bit burned in the process. The Zander family – Lina (Annalise Basso), Alice (Elizabeth Reaser), and Doris (Lulu Wilson) – love to hold fake séances to separate rubes from their money. Introducing the title object into their scam, they soon discover that they live in the former residence of a mad doctor who performed all manner of insane experiments. Doris becomes possessed by his spirit, and her sister Doris steps in to save her. Things then go from bad to much, much worse.
Ouija: Origin of Evil understands horror. The genre is not just an excuse for endless jump scares and pointless exposition. Instead, it creates its own unique world, populates it with people we come to care about, and then pours on loads of mood and atmosphere to turn a typical 100-minute fright fest into a suspense-filled excursion into terror. You can feel the dread creeping up your spine. Like another hero of the horror fanbase, the brilliant James Wan, Flanagan knows that the mind’s eye is the best place to put your fears. Let them fester there, and then he will expose the true scares his story delivers.
It does take a bit to get going, however. Ouija: Origin of Evil has a similar slant to Peter Cornwell’s The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), with the house and an object – in this case, the board game – linked in a way that will seem a bit obvious at first. But then the film manages its own mystery, filling in the blanks with basic genre tropes only to infuse them with an interpersonal purpose. We care for the Zanders, worry about what happens to the children, and wonder how this ties into Stiles White’s original and underwhelming 2014 Ouija.
What makes Flanagan’s take on the material so much better the second time around is the desire on his part to take things seriously. Most horror filmmakers are in it for the minute, to take ideas for “cool” scenes and string them together in a ragtag attempt at coherence. They know the audience could really care less. After all, when was the last time you wanted your white knuckle rollercoaster ride to make narrative sense? But Ouija: Origin of Evil is a proper horror film with a story that wants to be told. If that means we must wait through characterization and plot points to get to the scares, so be it.
It’s not a new idea. Wan works it with polish and panache in his films. Other filmmakers like William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and Clive Barker (Hellraiser) have done it well, too. Making a fright flick a “whole” experience is a lost art. It requires a balance that most moviemakers aren’t capable of or don’t care for. Eli Roth can pour on the gore, but force him to find an equilibrium between the splatter and the storyline, and he just can’t. It’s a burden that Sam Raimi regularly uses to carry and conquer.
You also have to give credit to the casting in Ouija: Origin of Evil. Nothing destroys a sense of fright better than a bad actor. No matter what their previous celebrity represents, if they can’t convince you that something unreal is “real”, you’re film is doomed. Think about it. A couple argues over some bumps in the night, and we are supposed to follow their flimsy performances for 80 minutes of passable paranormal activity. Not hardly. Ouija: Origin of Evil makes us believe because the performances convince us. You see it in Wan’s Conjuring films and the recent New England fear folklore of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015).
While the Ouiji prequel often proves to be the cinematic straw that truly strains the creative camel’s back, it also argues for the exception that further proves the rule. Most horror films like this are barely watchable. Ouija: Origin of Evil makes Ouija look lame and lax.