It often feels like we grade horror on a separate curve from the rest of the cinematic landscape.
All a horror film has to do to clear a certain quality bar is build a sense of dread without resorting to cheap jump scares. If it can manage that and little else, that somehow counts as a win. It’s like praising a puppy for pooping right next to its training pad. Hooray! You almost got there! You’ll get it next time! Heaping that hypothetical pooch with praise is essentially how I feel about Ouija: Origin of Evil. It deftly establishes a tone and creates some well-rounded characters, but then it drops a steaming pile on us so close to the end.
Origin of Evil is a prequel to the 2014 original, in which a group of frightfully generic teens are killed off by a spirit summoned from the titular game board. This film takes us back to 1967, when that spirit, Doris Zander, was just a little girl (Lulu Wilson) whose mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) conducted seances for money. When Alice catches her older daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) using a Ouija board with some friends, she decides to buy one herself and work it into her seance routine. Doris takes a shine to it right away, and begins communing with the spirits, both good and evil, that still occupy their house.
The whole reason Doris begins playing with the Ouija board in the first place is that she thinks she can use it to talk to her father, who passed away before the start of the film. She’s young enough that processing grief is still a new concept for her, and she handles it in some interesting ways. Namely, she prefers to pray to her father rather than to God. In fact, grief and how people handle it is of primary concern in Origin of Evil. Alice Zander’s entire business preys upon people in mourning, conducting trick seances to help put those in grief at ease. She sees no harm in it, actually framing it as a public service, and in a certain sense she’s right. It’s basically counselling by another name. Then, when the film introduces the Ouija board, we learn that grief has a dark, painful side that manifests itself as a yellow-eyed demon.
The first hour of this film is slow, methodical and surprisingly effective. Co-writer/director Mike Flanagan takes his time establishing the Zander family, introducing us to their circumstances and the people in their orbit. Most notably, we have Lina’s almost-boyfriend Mikey (Parker Mack) and the girls’ Catholic school principal Father Tom (E.T.’s Henry Thomas), still dealing with grief of his own. As Lina discovers that something is definitely not right with Doris, she brings her concerns to Father Tom, who begins investigating the Zanders’ home. What he learns about the house’s history comes out in one big clunky infodump, but the concept is absolutely chilling. It could possibly serve as its own sequel, if the Ouija producers want to keep going backward in the timeline.
Origin of Evil is a triumph of tone and setting, but is much less successful when it comes to packaging its scares into a coherent piece. In the early going, the film’s moments of horror are spare and genuinely unnerving. Doris’ first encounter with the demon is one of the best-executed jump scares in years. In the final act, though, with all the possessions, random deaths and supernatural shrieking, it all becomes a cacophony of horror noises flailing around in search of an ending. We get fakeouts and double fakeouts, dead bodies grabbing people because why the hell not; at one point a ghost shows up to take someone back in time… It’s a sensory overload that never quite connects with everything that’s come before.
Up until that point, though, the film seriously works. Lulu Wilson does some wonderfully creepy work as Doris, giving everyone dead-eyed stares and just the faintest hint of a sadistic grin. In one of her best scenes, posted below, she describes for Mikey the feeling of being strangled. It’s an amazing little monologue in the context of the film, but that scene alone is so good they used it in all of the trailers. As a whole, this film is by no means perfect, but it gets the job done. So if Halloween rolls around and you find yourself looking for a good scare (and lots and lots of banshee screaming), Ouija: Origin of Evil is a surprisingly solid piece of work.
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