A major surprise of “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is that it is not only good enough to be scary and entertaining but also actually better than its forgettable predecessor. While it is an origin story preceding “Ouija” (2014) as reflected by its title, the movie is enjoyable even when it is heading toward its predetermined ending, and, above all, you can have a spooky fun with it regardless of whether you have watched the 2014 film or not.
Its background is a suburban area in California in 1967, and we meet Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). After her husband suddenly died, Alice has to work for earning the money to support her family and keep their family house, and the opening sequence shows us how she works as a ‘medium’ in front of her latest client while secretly assisted by Lina and Doris. This is indeed a scam as she later admits to Doris, but both Lina and Doris understand well their difficult family situation, and they feel less guilty in this time because they serve their latest client with free extra service.
Like any good horror films, the movie pays considerable attention to characters during its first act which feels plain and mundane on the surface. Although her scam has gone well thanks to her daughters, Alice is still struggling with bills to pay, and she often clashes with her older daughter Lina, who has been rebellious as your average adolescent girl with issues. Like her mother, she has not recovered completely from her dear father’s death, and neither has her younger sister Doris, a little adorable girl who still does not fully grasp the loss felt by her mother and sister.
And then there comes a little thing which will change their life completely. After she happens to come across a Ouija board at her friend’s house, Lina suggests to her mother that she should spice their usual scam with Ouija board, and Alice goes along with her daughter’s suggestion. She equips it with a few small magnets for her scam, and we see her testing it alone in the drawing room while her daughters are in their upstairs bedroom.
Of course, she should have been more serious about three things its users are forbidden to do, and weird things begin to happen in the house not long after her testing. After starting to show strange behaviors, Doris surprises her family with her seemingly genuine medium ability, and this certainly shakes up Alice and Lina’s longtime skepticism. Fully convinced of the existence of the afterlife, Alice is glad to use Doris’ newfound talent for helping her clients instead of cheating them, but Lina remains a bit skeptical even though she also witnesses a certain proof which shows that her little sister can really connect with dead souls out there.
Meanwhile, what is happening in their house comes to draw the attention of Father Hogan (Henry Thomas – remember Elliot in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)?), the principal of the school attended by Lina and Doris. As an expert of spiritual business, he naturally becomes curious about Doris’ ability, and he also gets himself acquainted more with Alice, though both of them are well aware of the boundary between them despite their growing affection to each other.
During their private meeting, Father Hogan warns Alice of possible unknown dangers, and the situation surely becomes more sinister and ominous along with alarming signs reminiscent of those countless horror films about, yes, demonic possession. Under some dark influence, Doris begins to look more detached and disturbed than before, and we get a number of creepy moments such as a calm but insidious scene between Doris and Lina’s unsuspecting boyfriend Mikey (Parker Mack).
The director/co-writer/editor Mick Flanagan, who previously made “Oculus” (2013), steadily dials up the sense of menace and dread along the plot. Even when things get quite darker around its third act, the movie holds itself well while throwing several terrifying moments to jolt the audiences, and the overall result is as effective as “The Conjuring” (2013) and its recent sequel. Besides establishing the authentic period mood of the 1960s well on the screen, Flanagan also imbues the movie with interestingly old-fashioned visual touches including the old Universal Pictures logo, and I was often amused to notice a custom signal for film reel change on the upper right side of the screen (The movie was shot on digital film, by the way).
Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, and Lulu Wilson are convincing as human characters we can care and worry about, and their good performances are the main reason why their characters’ drama works with considerable emotional effects during the climax part. Henry Thomas and Parker Mack are also fine in their respective supporting roles, and some of you may be delighted to notice that Doug Jones, who has been mainly known for his collaborations with Guillermo del Toro, appears in the movie.
As a horror film, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is stuffed well with adequate amount of style and substance. While it is less distinctive compared to other notable horror movies of this year such as “The Witch” (2015), but I like its efficient handling of mood and narrative, which is a definite improvement compared to the 2014 film. If you have not watched “Ouija”, you may be interested in watching it in advance, but, believe me, you will not miss anything for skipping it.