Written by: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Do you know what it feels like to be strangled to death?"
Ouija: Origin of Evil is one of those inexplicable follow-ups, not only because nobody seemed to be clamoring for a prequel to Ouija but also because it boasts an overqualified director at the helm. Given that the first film is among the most rote, generic films to roll off of the Blumhouse/Platinum Dunes assembly line, it’s surprising to see Mike Flanagan (Absentia, Hush) steering this prequel. (The only comparable situation that comes to mind is when Jeff Burr found himself consistently attached to a string of sequels following From a Whisper to a Scream.) But it’s a nice surprise, especially since it results in a film that’s a marked improvement over its predecessor.
If I’m being honest, Ouija: Origin of Evil has no business being this good, what with the deck being stacked against it as the prequel to a movie boasting the ignominious “based on a Hasbro board game” credit. Such is the power of Flanagan, though; no longer simply a rising star in the genre ranks, he’s more than earned a higher distinction as one of its most reliable talents, especially after spinning this particular bit of straw into…well, perhaps not gold, but Origin of Evil something solid enough.
Set in late 60s Los Angeles, Origin of Evil rounds out the backstory from the first film that you’ve likely forgotten by now. Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) runs a fortune-telling racket along with her daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). Insisting that she helps her customers find closure, she’s mastered the art of the scam, deploying smoke, mirrors, and misdirection to contact the spirits of the dead. When Lina is caught sneaking out late at night and playing with a Ouija board, Alice is inspired to buy one and incorporate it into the act. Little does she know that it will allow Doris to become a genuine conduit for the spirit world: at first, she’s convinced she’s talking to her dead father, but it soon becomes obvious that something more ominous is at hand.
Despite functioning as a prequel, Origin of Evil doesn’t require intimate knowledge of the first film. As it turns out, that film being so goddamn forgettable is a boon to this follow-up, as the prequel elements didn’t even strike me until the very end (and even then, I had to consult IMDb to confirm the apparent connection). Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you bother to revisit Ouija first, but I’m glad I didn’t since I didn’t spend the entire movie with the ending in mind.
However, even if that weren’t the case, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard do a solid enough job of investing in the characters and their plight. The recent loss of her husband has left Alice desperate, and Reaser brings the right mix of confidence and anxiety to the role, admirably refusing to lapse into the hysterical woman cliché. She feels like something approaching an actual human being, one that’s been dealt a bad hand and is willing to do (or believe) anything to keep a home for her two daughters, both of whom are dealing with their own struggles. Doris—who has had a particularly difficult time accepting her father’s death—is labelled a freak by bullies at school, while Lina is suddenly navigating the world of friendships and boys at school.
By giving an actual damn about the characters, Flanagan ensures that the film’s scares will be effective outside of their loud, jolting nature. There are of course plenty of jump scares (this is essentially a haunted house movie after all) and other repurposed routines from the genre playbook (Doris becomes a textbook example of a creepy kid: vacant eyes, unsettling monologues, unreal bodily contortions), yet Flanagan performs this routine with a certain flair. His patience especially is a highlight: Origin of Evil is no full-throttle spook-a-blast but rather a slow-burning affair that builds to an effects-laden climax.
In the meanwhile, Flanagan deftly crafts smaller, spooky bits, such as Doris forcing a bully to turn a slingshot on himself in a schoolyard. A lesser filmmaker may have indulged this for a schlocky moment, but Flanagan’s camera stays trained on Doris, leaving the viewer to imagine the ghastly sight that would accompany the awful splat the slingshot eventually makes. Likewise, his camera often slinks and prowls around, leading the viewer to anticipate whatever awful revelation awaits, be it a demonic presence or a false jump scare. An example of the latter occurs early on, when Lina and her friends are breathlessly toying with the Ouija board: one girl is particularly spooked beyond belief, and Flanagan playfully teases out the scene before, wringing it for suspense and laughs.
It doubles as a mission statement, I suppose, as this scene captures the sort of forbidden thrills behind a Ouija board. This is why you’d even bother to make a film based off of this property: just about everyone is familiar with the board as an object that’s both “scary” and fun, and Flanagan realizes this in a way his predecessor did not. Where Ouija is a dreary, dull affair, Origin of Evil is a rollicking, vibrant effort that’s been wrapped in vintage, 60s digs. Faux cigarette burns pepper the “print” that opens with a classic, grainy Universal logo and a retro title card, giving this prequel a distinct, playful flavor.
Flanagan has put his own stamp on a generic franchise, which is no small feat considering just how forgettable Ouija is. More than anything, this follow-up is simply fun, making it an appropriate October release. Never underestimate the value of a perfectly enjoyable ride through a haunted house—there’s a reason these types of attractions pop up all over the country around Halloween, after all. Origin of Evil thrives on the exact spirit of showmanship that Alice relies on for her fortune telling routine, complete with funhouse style gags at one point (this has the best use of a corpse I’ve seen in a while). That it’s backed up by a lurid, twisting, turning story almost feels like icing on the cake: what starts out as a retro riff on Poltergeist takes a turn into Fulci territory. By the end, it more resembles House by the Cemetery than it does the first Ouija film, however vaguely and faintly (the PG-13 rating obviously doesn’t allow it to plunge headlong into the gore pool, though).
If I have one notable complaint, it’s that Flanagan doesn’t quite go all the way in terms of indulging the sordid backstory he eventually uncovers here. In the process of digging up unrested spirits and bones, he fumbles a bit by not completely excavating the mythology he hints at. [Spoiler alert.] If you’re going to craft a Dr. Freudenstein style Nazi mad scientist, you’re practically obligated to feature that prominently. Instead, this wrinkle rests infuriatingly in the background, preventing Origin of Evil from unqualified greatness.
Still, I’ll certainly settle for a more than solid effort considering just how dull and unremarkable Ouija is—in fact, this is one of the few prequels that unquestionably improves upon and enriches its predecessor. For that alone, Flanagan deserves praise and whatever franchise work happens to come his way. (Cue the Halloween theme?)
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