By Andrew Haas
I find it funny how Ouija boards are still around despite how often they’re associated with paranormal horror. I haven’t seen the first Ouija film from 2014 and from what I’ve heard, I made the right choice. The film was panned for being an excuse for throwing bargain bin jump scares at the audience while also promoting another one of Hasbro’s properties. When a prequel was announced, no one was excited in the least. However, things started to look interesting when Oculus director Mike Flanagan took the reigns, and it seems to have paid off. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a spike in quality quite like this.
Set in the 1960’s, this film follows Alice Zander, played be Elizabeth Reaser, a widowed mother running a seance scam business with her two daughters. When she decides to add a Ouija board to the act, the family accidentally awakens a dark presence that takes ahold of the youngest daughter, Doris.
The first thing I noticed about the direction of the film is how it tries to be like a film from the sixties. Not only is the setting and costume design reminiscent of the decade, but there are little touches like the older Universal logo and the title card having a date in small roman numerals. The smallest detail that interested me most was the use of reel change dots that flash at the corner of the screen. Even though everything is digital nowadays, it’s nice to see a subtle homage to old cinema film techniques. But that’s not all the film has going for it.
Instead of just focusing on scares, this film focuses on the characters, looking at how they relate to one another and how they evolve through the events of the film. Each actor gives a great performance. Reaser does a good job as the mother who uses a scam to “help bring people closure” while Henry Thomas does a great job playing a priest at a Catholic school who wants the best for this troubled family. However, the best performances come from the two daughters. Annalise Basso, who previously worked with Flanagan on Oculus, is terrific as the older daughter trying to cope with her family’s dilemma; and newcomer Lulu Wilson as Doris gives one of the few child performances in a horror film that’s legitimately creepy. In fact, that’s the best way to describe the horror element in general.
The film actually takes its time before it becomes scary. Even when the paranormal entity enters, the family is actually in awe and use it to their advantage. It isn’t until Doris gets herself deeper into the darkness that the terror begins. The chilling atmosphere keeps building as the film goes on and, personally, I found myself shaking in suspense wondering what it would all lead up to. There are some jump scares, but they’re well timed and shot beautifully, all without resorting to cheap music queues. Granted, not everything is as scary as it wants to be. The effects, while mostly decent, can get a little cartoonish at times, which kind of takes away from the 60’s feel. Also, the third act has some rather silly moments though they’re usually balanced out by something actually scary.
I’ve seen sequels that were better than the first, but not to the degree that Ouija: Origin of Evil has pulled off. This prequel is a great work of paranormal horror with great characters, a loving homage to 60’s cinema, and effective frights. I don’t think the first film needs to be seen in order to understand this film, which is great considering the first’s bad reputation. I highly recommend checking this film out, especially before the Halloween season is over. And who knows? Maybe this gives hope to all upcoming sequels to bad movies.