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When Is a Prequel Better Than the Original? When It's 'Ouija: Origin of Evil'

Lulu Wilson in Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

By piling on the characterization and atmosphere, Mike Flanagan creates a true horror classic out of broken pieces from the previous title.

Ouija: Origin of Evil

Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-10-21 (General release)
UK date: 2016-10-21 (General release)

The prequel. Few in film fandom enjoy the sound of that word. It usually signifies a kind of creative emptiness, producers and studio suits desperate to continue a franchise but unable to find a screenwriter who can work the last entry in the series into a legitimate follow-up. So instead, we go backwards, betting that audiences won't notice that they already know how everything ends and never really cared how they got there in the first place.

This means that such a film already has a strike against it. It needs to stand out and yet fit in, work as a stand-alone while sliding effortlessly into the entire movie mythology. It almost never works, but when it does, you marvel at the moviemaking mantle involved. Mike Flanagan is a current horror maestro du jour, living off 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 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, a bunch of 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 put on fake séances as way of separating the 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 does have a similar slant to something like A Haunting In Connecticut, with the house and an object -- in this case, the board game -- linked up in a way that will seem a bit obvious at first. But then the movie manages its own mystery, filling in the blanks with basic genre tropes only to infuse them with a kind of interpersonal purpose. We care for the Zanders, worry about what happens to the children, and more importantly, wonder how this all ties in to the original, and underwhelming 2014 film.

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 film, with a story that wants to be told. If that means that we have to 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. Past filmmakers like William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and Clive Barker (Hellraiser) have done it as well. 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 used to carry, and conquer.

You also have to give credit to the casting. 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, 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 of us its "real". It's the same as Wan's Conjuring films, or the recent New England fear folklore of Eggers' The VVitch (2015).

While the prequel often proves to be the cinematic straw that truly strains the creative camel's back, something like this argues for the exception that further proves the rule. Most movies like this are barely watchable. Ouija: Origin of Evil makes Ouija look lame and lax. It's a much better movie because it's just that: a movie. This prequel is not an excuse for shouting "BOO!" at the audience over and over again.


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