If sequels or prequels are supposed to feel like their predecessor, then Ouija: Origin Of Evil should be a cheap collection of clichés propped up by a board game property. Somehow, that didn’t happen. In fact, it just might be the best mainstream horror movie to slip out of the Hollywood system this year. The same producers (including Michael “artistic integrity” Bay) who cranked out the last worthless Ouija movie decided to put the follow up in the hands of the genuinely talented and serious horror filmmaker in Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush, Absentia). Even better, they gave him complete control and he delivered a smart, beautifully crafted, and downright terrifying fright flick that gives PG-13 horror a good name. I know. It shouldn’t be possible right? I’m as confused as you. But I am also increasingly certain that Flanagan is the best horror filmmaker of his generation. If he can polish this turd into something great, just imagine what he could do with an original screenplay and studio resources.
The plot is taken from the backstory to the original Ouija, on the off chance anyone cares. But wisely Flanagan has not only made the tale his own, but delivered a movie that can be enjoyed without any knowledge of what came before. Elizabeth Reaser stars as a recent widow in the 60s who has taken up psychic readings to pay the bills. Of course, it’s a scam involving smoke and mirrors, with her daughters as assistants played out in an amusingly tongue-in-cheek opening. Her elder daughter (Annalise Basso, from Oculus) then attends a wee party where her friends bust out the new Ouija board game that’s all the rage and suggests her mother add it to the act. The younger daughter (Lulu Wilson) is immediately taken with the board and starts having conversations with someone who she believes is daddy. That leads to the business becoming somewhat legit and Wilson also being possessed by a dastardly black spirit portrayed by Doug Jones. Obviously, trouble is afoot from there. The first person to notice? Why the priest serving as principal at the girls’ school (Henry “that kid from E.T.” Thomas) of course!
In a welcome rarity for mainstream studio horror, Mike Flanagan takes his time to build up some slow burn horror here. Taking full advantage of the Universal resources, Flanagan weaves together some gorgeous sequences dripping with atmosphere to set the scene. His roaming camera creeps and stalks without ever going into the stylistic overload of a James Wan production. It’s classically old fashioned, with a vintage Universal logo, amazing period production design, and even imposed cigarette burns and reel changes for subliminal film nerdery. The acting is also impressively naturalistic, with the director weaving his usual magic with young talent and even the adults feeling more like identifiable character actors than slumming models/would be movie stars. The story as real as anything involving demonic possession and a Ouija board can, with fully formed characters. Viewers have time to invest in the world and care for the characters beyond a series of empathetic cartoons aas a result the scares hit that much harder when they arrive.
Much like his brilliant break out picture Oculus (which is seriously one of the best and oddly underrated horror flicks of the past decade, so seek that one out if you’ve yet to be lose sleep from it), Flanagan peppers in some creep outs early on but mostly builds tension for a blowout finale. The kiddie possession is unsettling, yet kept mostly to isolated freak outs, disturbing images, and even out of focus scares in the corner of the frames to keep viewers off balance. Eventually it all builds to a nutty 20-minute horror show finale that delivers big jolts and a new backstory that’s surprisingly disturbing for this type of playful Halloween fright flick. Flanagan mixes supernatural scares with more psychological material until it becomes indistinguishable and an uncomfortable hush takes over his audience. It works and works damn well. Granted, the material is mostly rooted in possession and haunting gags that have been seen before, but when executed by a filmmaker this confident and compelling in his craft, it’s impossible to complain.
It also has to be noted that Flanagan crams all of his spook outs, careful characterization, unsettling atmosphere, and vintage design into a PG-13 package without being hampered by the rating. That’s rare and not easy. The last one to pull it off properly was likely Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (which coincidentally was also a Universal Picture with a vintage logo). Flanagan doesn’t view the rating restriction as a limitation, but a stylistic guideline. He delivers a horror romp that brings back fond memories of movies like Poltergeist and The Changeling that will serve as a satisfying intro to the genre for youngsters just getting into horror as well as a nostalgia trip with genuine impact for hardened horror aficionados. The result is a horror flick with the broad commercial appeal of Lights Out or Don’t Breathe, yet with a stronger screenplay and artistic design than either of those studio projects dared to strive for.
All of that within a horror franchise that seemed dead on arrival two years ago. Hopefully it’s a hit. Mike Flanagan deserves it and the studio deserves it for giving this property to someone with a voice and vision. Hollywood horror is rarely this good, people. You just got yourself a Halloween treat to enjoy in the theater during the spookiest of seasons.