“Ouija: Origin of Evil” has no right to be good.
Not only does it follow “Ouija,” an insipid 2014 horror hit that was roundly criticized for being lazy and dull, this is a prequel, one of the most reviled of cinema subgenres. And last but possibly most worrisome, it’s a horror movie based on a children’s board game. “Hush” and “Oculus” helmer Mike Flanagan must be a madman to have signed on to this project, but as it turns out, a madman is just what this freaky franchise needed.
Set in 1967 Los Angeles, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” centers on the Zander clan, made up a faux-medium mother (Elizabeth Reaser), her rebellious teen daughter Paulina (Annalise Basso), and her youngest, the sweet yet bullied Doris (Lulu Wilson). All three work together to enact the candle tricks and showmanship required to pull off faked séances. But when momma Alice brings home the Ouija board as a new prop, Doris soon discovers she can actually communicate with the dead. Hideousness ensues.
Looking back on “Ouija,” the two films are bound by setting, McGuffin, bits of back-story, and a few characters in common. However, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” stands strongly on its own, preventing these ties to its predecessor from weighing down its story or tugging on its taut tension. It helps that the first film was so woefully forgettable, but even if you remember the connections confirmed in its post-credit sequence, the journey to this prequel’s fateful conclusion is still thrilling and sickly entertaining.
Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard offer plenty of clichés, from the haunted single mom, to the creepy kid trope, and some stretched-face visual effects scares reminiscent of “The Ring.” But in Flanagan’s hands, they feel fresh and absolutely, bone-rattling terrifying.
Opening on one of Alice’s séance scams, Flanagan sets up a familiar setting, but then winks at the audience with the reveal that its all smoke and mirrors. This playful self-awareness distinguishes the director’s latest from so much sloppy shock horror this year. Rather than studding this story with jump scares, Flanagan trains the audience to anticipate these through familiar setups, like a girl looking into a bathroom mirror, or blankets being slowly tugged away from a sleeping child. But he stealthily zigs when we expect zags, delivering wallops of fright. More impressive, the graceful and gorgeous cinematography plays with the depths of the house, training us to look past the characters to dark figures lurking in back rooms. And then, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, Flanagan feints again before landing a one-two punch that leaves the audience yowling in terror.
Best yet, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” delivers one of the scariest sequences since “The Exorcist.” To tell you which would be to say too much, but I’ll tease this: it’s a sequence layered with terror and scares, and made monstrous and unrelenting by a seamless combination of deeply disturbing visual effects, and incredible creature performances by a break-takingly frightening Wilson and horror icon Doug Jones. You scream, and think Flanagan will cut away, but the gruesomeness only mounts, throwing the audience into a fevered pitch of cries of disbelief, hands slapped protectively over eyes, and traumatized shrieks. It’s a wholly unique theatrical experience. I can’t recall the last time I heard an audience scream like that! And that’s just the first act break.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is truly chilling. I mean, I actually felt goosebumps ripple across my flesh, from toes to temples. Sure, its plot might bet a bit perplexing towards the end. But when you’re screaming yourself hoarse, it’s hard to care.
Devilishly smart about this genre, Flanagan took an impossible property and made it monstrously satisfying. Taking cues from ’70s horror, he allots generous time to developing the Zanders individually and as a family. Which gives us a deep connection to their plight, and a false sense of comfort in their surroundings. So when that pesky planchette comes into play, our sense of security is stripped away with the sharp snap of cozy blankets pitched off a defenseless sleeper in the wee hours of a petrifying night.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” opens October 21.
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