Ouija: Origin of Evil Review

By Sam Holloway

Edited by Carl Cottingham
I remembered dismissing the original Ouija back in 2014. It was a standard, i.e. weak, PG-13 horror movie. Oh, sure, it was something that might have been scary to me when I was a part of its targeted preteen demographic, but it wasn’t remotely enticing enough to get me to theaters anymore. Apparently I didn’t miss much; critics almost universally panned Ouija, leaving it with a 7% score on Rotten Tomatoes. But that doesn’t change the fact that audiences, presumably full of young teens starved for horror by the dominance of the R rating, showed up in droves for it and the movie ended up grossing $104 million domestically.

So, inevitably, Universal Studios quickly produced a follow-up, a loosely-connected prequel titled Ouija: Origin of Evil. At first, Origin of Evil may seemed poised to another round of negative reception, and more dough, by simply remaining “another PG13 horror movie.” Instead, director and franchise newcomer Mike Flanagan (Hush, Oculus) delivered a pleasant pre-Halloween surprise: a refreshing compromise between the series’ roots in youth horror and the well-crafted and mature terrors Flanagan has quickly become known for in his own right.

Origin of Evil stars Elizabeth Reaser (The Twilight Saga) as Alice Zander, a phony spirit medium living in 1960s Los Angeles alongside Annalise Basso (Captain Fantastic, Oculus) and Lulu Wilson as her two young daughters, Paulina and Doris. When Alice brings home an Ouija board to add to her seance act, strange events begin to plague the family, none the least of which is the very odd behavior on the part of Doris, who the board seems to have put in tune with some very real and terrifying spirits.

Of course, much of the movie revolves around these three woman coping with the terrors wrought by these spirits in the usual horror fashion, but the nature of their haunting — with young Doris caught in the balance — provides for plenty of character drama as well. The clear standout here is Lulu Wilson, in her debut role, who straddles the line between adorable and creepy with an effectiveness so obviously valuable and so unfortunately rare in child actors working in the horror genre.

That isn’t to slight Reaser or Basso, however, who both seem to have a similar knack for balancing horror, drama, and even self-aware comedy. These are performances far above the (admittedly low) standard bar for horror film acting. They move effortlessly from the scene of a nail-biting scare to a heartbreaking discussion of their financial situation and then to some legitimately funny banter at the breakfast table. Origin of Evil‘s sheer diversity of tone could have been disastrous in the wrong hands, but the execution on the part of its main trio somehow makes sure the lighthearted and the horrific are complimentary. The supporting males in Henry Thomas as Father Tom and Parker Mack as Mikey can be seen as comparatively weaker links in the cast, particularly Thomas, yet they are also comparatively limited by their small roles.

Adding to all of that are some excellent production decisions: carefully-limited scope, cheesy 1960s wardrobe, pseudo-classical camerawork, and a time-appropriate soundtrack among them. Some questionable CGI aside, Origin of Evil creates a world that can be alternatively charming, intimidating, and, more importantly, believable for its story. Unfortunately, that story is about as strong as a middling drama film, something that seems far too standard for the horror genre. As the Zanders sink deeper into their haunting, a web of relationships and a muddled past are gradually revealed, and they do about half of their job of explaining what exactly is going on. For some, Origin of Evil may rely a bit too heavily on the imaginative history and vague family drama typical of the modern Hollywood horror. But this weaker core is supported by the aforementioned performances and production aspects, and is augmented at every turn by solid scares well-spaced by effective tension — the aspect pay to see  — and it is here where the movie again excels.

Origin of Evil strikes a balance of fear right between shock and dread, leaning towards either side periodically but always swaying back, resulting in a pace that is accelerated yet comfortable like the viewer’s heart rate. Sometimes the movie doesn’t seem to pull any punches despite its PG-13 rating; other times it definitely does. But when these limitations do become apparent, they don’t seem like constrictions as much as they do mere boundaries, thoughtfully maneuvered around to hint at horrors rather than show them outright. With a few exceptions, it can be argued that this reservedness enhances Origin of Evil‘s more explicit terrors. This contrast, combined with the film’s more lighthearted moments, keep things simultaneously creepy, energetic, and surprisingly fresh throughout. Origin of Evil is genuinely entertaining and fun as a result.

And maybe fun isn’t the word that comes to mind when most people think of horror movies. Don’t get me wrong: if you don’t scary movies, you probably won’t like this one. And it you do like scary movies, but only for intensity that will keep you up for weeks afterwards, this probably won’t satisfy your hunger. There have been plenty of horror movies released this past year that will more then do that: Don’t Breathe, The Conjuring 2, and even Hush (arguably Mike Flanagan’s best). Ouija: Origin of Evil instead serves as a strong and worthwhile counterbalance to these sorts of contemporary popular horror greats. It’s a film for those who wish to see one of the best horror directors working today exercising a reserved, impressive, and, more accessible craft. It’s a film for those who want to be scared, but not too scared.

Carl Cottingham

Carl Cottingham is a senior at New York University majoring in Cinema Studies with a minor in film production. In his freshman year, he joined the Motion Picture Club. He can be followed on Twitter at @crc1939.


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