“Ouija: Origin of Evil” Review: Not Your Grandmother’s Horror Film

Courtesy of Universal
Courtesy of Universal

Truly, the most disappointing aspect of Ouija: Origin of Evil is that the origin of evil is never actually discovered.

It seems as though this titular misnomer exists because Origin of Evil is a prequel to 2014’s Ouija, based on the classic Hasbro game. However, this prequel works as a stand-alone film, partially because there are new writers and a new director. It’s really more of a tangential film, where a detail from the original is expanded into an entire new universe. Either way, as far as paranormal horror goes, this one is pretty decent.

Directed by Mike Flanagan, the story surrounds the Zander family, who make their living by pretending to be able to contact the dead. However, after the purchase of a Ouija board, it is discovered that the youngest child, Doris (Lulu Wilson), is genuinely able to make paranormal contact. All seems to be going well, until the full effects of Doris’s powers are revealed.

Written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, part of the film’s success derives from a strong screenplay. These movies can often feel very tedious due to redundancies or confusing rules within their worlds. But the plot here moves forward at a fast pace, with punchy dialogue explaining any holes in a clear and concise manner. The screenplay is far from perfect; there are underdeveloped moments and a messy structure, but enough bones are there to keep the audience engaged.

It is the film’s quick pacing that makes this horror movie fun to watch, despite an upfront lack of scares and the fact that it’s a while before the promised catharsis takes effect. (And even when it does, it doesn’t seem to go far enough.) Nevertheless, the journey throughout is pretty consistently entertaining.

Ouija: Origin of Evil has all of the mechanics of being a very scary movie, but it is often only mildly frightening. All of the elements necessary for creating palatable scenes are present, but the film fails to stick the landing. The movie seems to be lacking the heart needed to truly keep its audience engaged. Perhaps it is the clearly defined mechanics that prevent the audience from fully connecting with the film.

Similarly unhelpful is how the movie seems to be simultaneously admiring and avoiding classic clichés of paranormal horror, creating a weird standard. It feels like the movie has self-awareness, but only to a certain extent. Furthermore, while predictable plot movement makes the film easy to digest, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for exploration. And the movement of the plot in Ouija: Origin of Evil is so transparent that it might as well be a ghost.

Still, if the mechanics are a bit obvious, they are incredibly well done. The camera movement in particular is absolutely masterful. The camera zooms and pans, directing the audience through some crazy occurrences while never failing to dramatize even the smaller, subtler moments. If James Wan is the king of this type of horror, Mike Flanagan is not far behind.

The special effects, meanwhile, are both sparse and ambitious. The film suffers on the whole from seeming too small in scale, but the special effects seem almost nonexistent for a large portion of the film. Then, when they are revealed, they play a big role. And while they don’t look astoundingly good, they get the job done and expose the audience to some ridiculously creepy imagery.

The final piece in the puzzle of how this film works is the magnificent performances of its three leading ladies. Doris, Lina (Annalise Basso, playing the younger version of Lin Shaye’s role) and Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) are all in different, pivotal ages, and their dynamics allow for some interesting moments. The characters themselves seem to exist in a bit of a vacuum, but the performances sell the horror and trauma building in every scene.

Although the origin of evil is never discovered by the film, there is some time spent discussing what the afterlife is like. The consensus is stated so often it’s practically a motif: the afterlife is cold. While this seems like a bit of a cop-out, it is actually a perfect metaphor for Ouija: Origin of Evil. The execution seems like it should be doing wonders, and for the most part, it’s very enjoyable, but at the end of the day, the movie just seems… cold.

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