Trust Mike Flanagan to turn a flippin’ board game into a good horror film. You’ve got good reason to be sceptical walking into a theatre screening Ouija: Origin of Evil, a prequel to the much-maligned Ouija, itself a result of Universal’s ill-conceived deal with Hasbro that inspired the kind of shitty films you expect when you try to make movies from board games. But Flanagan – responsible for Oculus, which I can’t stop raving about and should really review someday, and Hush (which was okay) – turns cardboard into gold, crafting a compelling, original story out of familiar horror tropes.
The first thing that sets Ouija: Origin of Evil apart is how good it looks. Working with a modest budget and digital cameras, Flanagan and DP Michael Fimognari use their late-‘60s period setting to stage an elaborate facsimile of 35 mm film – right down to the reel changes! The mimicry extends from the vintage Universal logo that opens the film, through cigarette burns in the top right to god-dang split-dioptre shots. It all contributes to a sense of place, time and style.
But there’s more to the film than how it looks. While Origin of Evil’s palette is stocked with familiar colours – a possessed girl spider-walking across a staircase, a shadowy ghost on the margins of vision, a young girl transfixed by the television in a haunted house built atop a graveyard (of sorts…) – the picture it paints is bracingly unique. Rather than adopting the Conjuring-style schematic, where the story is secondary to the scares, Flanagan and Jeff Howard’s screenplay builds horror from its setting, themes and characters. While not averse to the occasional jump scare (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), Origin of Evil distinguishes itself from its contemporaries by delving into real fears, fears founded in faith and family.
The family in question is composed of single mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser, who you’ll maybe remember from Mad Men), and her daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). [The latter two are characters in Ouija, though this is knowledge gleaned only through reading the Wikipedia plot summary.] Alice pays the bills by masquerading as a medium – with her girls supplying the requisite special effects – but her spiritual scam takes a turn into the actual occult when she picks up a copy of the titular board game. Doris demonstrates an ability to channel actual spirits through the board, communicating with client’s loved ones and even her own deceased father. Doris’s talents save the family house – thanks to uncovering a wad of cash in the basement walls – and salve Alice’s guilt over her charlatan ways as she offers genuine comfort to her customers. Everybody’s happy, everything works out!
Not quite. You don’t need to have seen many horror films to know that communicating with the dead tends to have adverse results, and soon Doris is possessed by the spirit of Marcus (Doug Jones). But even as Doris exhibits increasingly unnatural behaviour, Alice continues to exploit her knack for clairvoyance. Rather than feeling like the kind of cheap characterisation common in crappy horror films, Alice’s persistence is grounded in her need for a connection to the afterlife – in part because of the hole left by her husband’s death, but more broadly as a need for something to believe in.
Yes, Ouija: Origin of Evil is one of those occult movies with a distinctly Christian bent, the kind of film that makes a hero out of a priest (Father Tom, played by Henry Thomas) and seems to almost be operating as a PSA against conversing with spirits. But where there’s an icky strain to the way that, say, The Conjuring presents the Warrens as Christian soldiers (casually erasing their often amoral exploitation of their clients), Origin of Evil makes a serious attempt to grapple with the paradox of faith: the need to know truths that, by their very nature, cannot be revealed.
The increasing corruption of Doris (remarkably realised by the pre-pubescent Wilson) taps into more corporeal fears: the fear of family eroding away, the fear of losing a child – the kind of fears that the first half of The Exorcist so memorably exploited. While things eventually descend into more traditional horror tropes – swinging knives and ghoulish figures and rotting bones – the film’s most effective in its unnerving midsection, as we realise that perhaps Alice has gone too far. That perhaps she’s lost her child forever.
The third act – with all those traditional scares – is certainly less effective than what precedes it. That’s pretty well inevitable given the film’s remit to outlay all the pieces for Ouija, which necessitates some narrative clumsiness in the interests of propping a film that – if it’s reputation is to be believed – is vastly inferior to this one. And Ouija: Origin of Evil often feels like it’s constrained by Ouija, whether it’s the frequent references to the moon landing failing to cohere into anything substantial, or the way it rhymes so consistently with Oculus that it almost feels like a watered-down sequel to that film.
These failings are pretty forgivable in the scheme of things, particularly when compared with recent horror prequel failings like the dreadful Annabelle. After the mild disappointment that was Hush, Flanagan proves himself as a horror director to watch with Origin of Evil. There’s a sense of craft and intelligence here that I’m excited to see more of: the scares that ebb and flow like a gentle tide rather than the frenzied crash-and-dump of most modern horror; the strength of compositions, the thoughtfulness of the lighting and the depth of the field. Now, let’s see what Flanagan can do with Monopoly…