Synopsis: The year is 1967, and single mom Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is making a living doing readings for the bereaved people seeking comfort and closure. She assures her two helpful daughters teenaged Lina (Annalise Basso) and nine-or-ten year old Doris (Lulu Wilson) that what they are not charlatans or cheats because they are offering the next best thing to a community service. However, the bills are mounting, the house is in danger of foreclosure, and the difficulties of life are intruding on their family. Help arrives in the form of a Parker Brothers board game, which Lina saw in use at a party. Could this be a new means of giving customers closure? Alice decides to invest in a copy. There are only three rules to follow when using such a device: 1) never play alone, 2) never use it in a graveyard, and 3) always say goodbye. These seem like simple rules, but for a family that doesn’t place much faith in matters of the spirit as more than a business opportunity, such rules are easily ignored. They then proceed to break the rules (intentionally and not) one-by-one. As it turns out, the family’s initial disbelief is wrong, particularly after Doris channels spirits the way Alice’s mother supposedly once did. The spirit claims to be the children’s father/Alice’s husband, but is it really? And if not, what game is the spirit playing with this family? The chilling answers are revealed (without the need to invest in a planchette and board of our own) in Mike Flanagan’s 2016 horror film, Ouija: Origin of Evil.
I have a Ouija board on the shelf, but let me take this opportunity to assure Considering Stories readers that I am not a shill for Parker Brothers.
Apparently, Ouija is a horror franchise from producers Jason Blum and Michael Bay, falling in line with a bunch of remakes and rebooted series that include Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Friday the 13th (2009), and The Amityville Horror (2005). I have not seen any of the other pics in the Ouija franchise and never really had the urge to see them. I came to this movie because I have enjoyed Mike Flanagan’s work, starting with catching Oculus (2013) in theaters and then then watching 2018’s reimagining of The Haunting of Hill House. I found the latter to be an odd adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, completely missing the wry sense of humor that infuses that text, but a brilliant little horror series on its own merits. It owes a lot to Stephen King, of course; it should come as no surprise to learn that Flanagan has adapted King’s work before (2017’s masterfully rendered Gerald’s Game, which we review tomorrow) and will be doing so again (an upcoming adaptation of Doctor Sleep is due for release in November). I like Flanagan’s way with storytelling, I like the weird ghostly things he does with makeup (particularly those creepy eyes for his unearthly presences), and I enjoy watching the repertory company of actors he populates his films with. That said, Ouija: Origin of Evil may be a prequel to a franchise of flicks, but it stands on its own as a flick worth watching both for its well-grounded characters and effective fright flick set pieces.
The story settles right in on the family doing what they do, establishing some mood as well as the characters in a day-in-the-life reading sequence. However, after the experience, the tricks are revealed—one girl playing the shadowy presence on the other side of the curtain and the second tucked inside the furniture to manipulate candles. The established séance mood and then the breakdown fall along similar lines to another movie we checked out earlier, 2011’s The Awakening, though from a different place of interest. Where The Awakening pulled aside the curtain to show the magician’s tricks as a way of showing the protagonist’s canny intellect and hatred for charlatans, here we see the magicians breaking down set after a performance and rationalizing their own activities in ways we can appreciate. If asked the inevitable question of “How do these people sleep at night?” It turns out the answer is: Pretty well. They don’t see their actions as defrauding anyone, after all.
The movie takes some pains to establish this family, their lives (the girls attend a Catholic school, humorously enough), and their relationships to one another and the world around them. It draws its inspiration from classic Stephen King family horror terrain, giving us an eye-view into the normal world before mixing in some real supernatural hijinks.
The supernatural hijinks build slowly, too. The board’s introduction is almost a joke, particularly to the family’s skeptic Lina, who would prefer to deal with the pain of a dead father with the belief that there’s nothing after this life. She uses her family business skills to break down the use of the board at a party and still finds one of the party goers believing regardless. She’s the one to make the suggestion to bring the board into the reading room. Mom is the one who breaks the first rule, “using” the board while practicing a magnetic manipulation she can work into the show. However, this break has an immediate effect, causing Doris to wink out for a moment. Has she become a channel for an unknown and random spirit presence, or is something else happening?
The spooky stuff continues its slow burn progression. Bed covers move on their own, odd shadowy presences flit in the backgrounds, Doris knows things she should not know . . . These build over time until Doris becomes the channel for the board itself. She is also the first person to see the shadowy spirit shapes, when she uses the planchette like a pinhole camera, observing the room through the wedge’s lens. She gets wind of treasures hidden in the walls, money enough to stop the foreclosure. All of this “helpfulness” will of course have a price. Soon enough, there’s evil afoot in the house, and the supernatural stuff builds. The film slips over into macabre thriller/supernatural mystery territory as the family and Father Tom (Henry Thomas) team up to figure out what’s really going on and how to save Doris.
The movie has familiar horror beats. I could predict when jump scares and creepy things were going to happen (though maybe I was as much as two seconds off on some occasions), and yet the time the movie used to establish the characters was well paid off. I knew dreadful things were going to be happening before they did, and I still found myself creeped out. That’s the sign of a successful horror movie, when the brain knows full well, “Here it comes!” and the body still shivers. Could that have been due to a cup of wine? Could it have been the late hour—I watched this one when everyone else was asleep)? Or does the scare stuff director/co-writer Flanagan has to show just really work on me? I expect it’s the latter, since his other work has frazzled my nerves pretty effectively over the years.
In fact, Flanagan’s vision of ghosts/the dead/the supernatural is the sort that haunts not my dreams but my recollections when I get up at oh-God-thirty in the morning with the dire need to purge my urine-swollen bladder. I can see those weird grins in my mind’s eye, those eyes that are creepy blank (as in here) or shiny (as in Oculus), and it’s all a terrible rush to finish the old business and get back to bed. Though I am a guy in my forties who knows better, I still sometimes feel like a spooked kid. Imagination is both a blessing and a curse, sometimes.
Anyway, back to the movie. There are some great practical effects in the flick when the supernatural leaks into the house or invades it outright. Some of the more effective rely on limited vision—the camera serving as POV for Doris or another character peering through that planchette’s lens. The camera offers the Sam Raimi sort of POV, turning left and then right, scanning the area until something appears just at the edge of vision or hunkers.
One of the finer pleasures Ouija: Origin of Evil offers is the opportunity to see Doug Jones shine (almost literally, since his monster suit glistens like clean motor oil) in the role of the presence lurking in the house. He doesn’t get much screen time, but like the presences he brought to life in Hellboy (2004), Crimson Peak (2015), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Shape of Water (2017) and other flicks, he imbues this particular presence with creepy body language and voice. Doug Jones doesn’t play monsters; like the best actors he plays characters.
The setting is also well-rendered. Attention to period details for the set design, the costuming, the language and whatnot are well done. The film has fun with the 1960s, and though it never quite presents the stereotypical party scenes we might expect after watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), there is a time capsule quality to the period presentation. I particularly loved the title card overlay at the film’s beginning, which was right out of an Amicus or similar groovy horror production from that period. This could be a movie from that era, in fact. Less a period piece than a recently rediscovered “lost” film.
Although Ouija: Origin of Evil is a prequel flick to a franchise and, so far as I am aware, Flanagan’s only venture into any of the franchises under that particular banner, the flick is more closely aligned to Flanagan’s oeuvre than to the productions appearing under Bay’s producer credit. It feels like connective tissue between earlier works, such as Oculus and his most recent production, the 10 episode adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. The ghostly presences operate in similar ways, the have similar motivations, the interplay between the realm of the living and the dead is uniform between the three independent productions . . . Sure, they work on their own, but they also assemble along a continuum, mirror reflections of one another (yes, that’s a nod to Oculus‘s conceit). In a way, this reminds me of 2018’s Black Panther, which works not only as a Marvel movie but plays with a lot of the driving themes, characters, and relationships found in writer/director Ryan Coogler’s other features, Fruitvale Station and Creed. These projects are not only commercial ones; they are personal ones that give us an eye view into the creative minds behind them.
I, for one, look forward to the future views into the Flanagan-verse. Next up, as mentioned is Doctor Sleep (one of my favorites Stephen King releases in the last few years), and after that I am sure we will get another nightmare-fuel scenario. Only time will tell what it might be . . . I am eager to find out.
Next up, we will be taking a look at Gerald’s Game, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel from today’s director/co-writer Mike Flanagan. It was a Netflix original release, and it’s still available on that service. There aren’t DVD and Blu-ray editions that I am aware of. Doesn’t mean they don’t exist, I just don’t know about them . . .
“SHOCKtober Movies: Ouija: Origin of Evil” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R Robichaud. Poster and image are taken from IMDB.