Ouija: Origin of Evil bears little connection to the 2014 film Ouija, other than having the board game at the center of it. It takes place in the 1965 Los Angeles. Widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) performs a sham psychic act with the help of her two daughters Lina and Doris (Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson). She brings in a Ouija board to enhance her act, and younger daughter Doris displays a strange affinity for it, and a genuine ability to use it to contact the dead. While Alice initially sees this as a good thing, Lina notices unsettling changes in her younger sister.
To say that this movie is better than the first attempt to make a movie out of this board game property would be an understatement. That’s a pretty low bar to clear, honestly, the first movie a pile of illogic with no distinct flavor. This film, if nothing else, made very clear decisions about what it wanted to look and feel like. From the title sequence to the cigarette burns in the corner of the screen for the non-existent reel changes, the film does everything it can to feel like a film from another time. And in doing that, the film manages to be pretty fun along the way.
The story has hints of greatness in it. It’s clear a lot of thought was put into what kind of emotional story you can tell when burdened with being a tie-in to a board game. Through its characters, the film depicts illusion as a source of comfort. Alice may not really be communicating with the dead, but the illusion of such might be just as good for people seeking closure. And then the film gets into the dark side of that as the horror rolls on. It’s clever, though it does all fall apart a bit in the final portions of this story. The film gets tangled into a bit of lore that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and then ends up going a step too far in pursuit of final scares.
The film is also further limited by the fact that this was designed to be a PG-13 horror film in the US. There are points where it feels like the film ought to be getting weirder, or more disturbing. What’s there is fairly effective, but in terms of scares the film colors within the lines. The production makes up for this somewhat. There is a beguiling self-awareness to this film that really separates it from the rest of the pack. And it has a very defined look, real effort put into replicating the aesthetics of trashy horror cinema of the era.
The film has fun with some intentional roughness. A jarring false reel change will double as a jarring cut. The shaky zooms give some scenes an unsettling, voyeuristic feeling. The film is most interesting when it isn’t outright trying to scare people. There is a clear command of the genre being exhibited in the smallest scenes, the production design, the sound, and the editing all coming together in intriguing ways. The acting is pretty solid as well, particularly from the two playing the sisters. Annalise Basso sells the worry, and Lulu Wilson makes the role of the scary kid seem fresh and exciting.
Ouija: Origin of Evil tries really hard. It doesn’t quite overcome the full force of the crass commercialism that is the origin of this project, but it comes pretty close. There is artistry on display even as the film fulfills its contractual obligations. It finds something to say about this dumb board game. It can’t keep up the momentum all the way to the end, but that doesn’t negate all the fun that’s already present in the rest of this movie. This is a film that takes silly stuff seriously, and is then smart enough and self-aware enough to not let the seriousness bog it down.
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