For some reason, there are slim pickings at the box office this 2016 Halloween season. There just aren’t a whole lot of horror movies opening this month.
One film that has opened in October 2016, is OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), a prequel of sorts to the dreadful OUIJA (2014). Surprisingly, this film really isn’t all that bad, and it’s much better than its horrible predecessor. In fact, the worst thing going for it is that it’s another movie built around a popular board game, in this case the ouija board. Sure, ouija boards have been in existence long before they were marketed as a fun night in for the kids, but it’s the popular toy store version that’s the centerpiece of these movies, and as such, they do play like glorified commercials, and I just don’t like commercials.
That being said, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL does have some good things going for it.
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL takes place in 1965. I’m not exactly sure why the movie takes place in the 1960s. At first, I thought the initial 1965 setting was going to be just for the opening scene, and the rest of the film would take place during present day, but this wasn’t the case. Then I thought that perhaps the story would tie into 1960s popular culture, but this really wasn’t the case either. While the 1960s setting does add some charm to the proceedings, that’s all it does, unless I’m missing some historical connection to the ouija board, but I’m pretty sure I’m not. Plus nothing of historical significance about the ouija board is mentioned in the film. Long story short, this movie could have easily taken place today.
Widowed mom Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) runs a seance scam business with her two daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso), who’s in high school, and Doris (Lulu Wilson) who’s in grade school. It’s Lina and Doris who help their mom with the secret effects that make their clients believe they are speaking with the dead. And while it is fake, Alice doesn’t see their business as hurting people. In fact, she sees it as the opposite, as she constantly gives hope and encouragement to her clients, providing them with positive messages from beyond— their deceased loved ones forgive them, they’re free from pain, they still love them, etc.
And Alice and her daughters are familiar with this pain because her husband and the girl’s father was killed by a drunk driver. In addition to dealing with the emotional trauma of his death, they are also constantly struggling to make ends meet.
After playing with a ouija board at a friend’s house, Lina suggests to her mom that they get one to add to their act. Alice does indeed purchase one, but unbeknownst to her or Lina, it turns out that young Doris has a heightened ability to contact spirits from beyond, and the ouija board acts as a perfect conduit for her abilities. She attracts the attention of a sinister demon which enters her body, and the next thing we know, little Doris is quite possessed and doing all the nasty things that possessed children do.
To help combat this unwelcomed evil which has violated their family, they turn to the principal of the girls’ Catholic School, Father Tom (Henry Thomas). The battle lines have been drawn. Let the exorcisms begin!
Actually, there aren’t any exorcisms here. Just ouija boards.
There are three things I really liked about OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, and combined they almost—almost!—compensate for the two major things I didn’t like about this movie.
First and foremost, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL has some terrific acting. Elizabeth Reaser is solid in the lead as the mother of this family, Alice Zander. She’s sincere, she’s believable, and in spite of being a scam artist, she’s likable. You care about her and her daughters.
As teen daughter Lina, Annalise Basso delivers an even stronger performance. There’s a moment near the end of the film where she expresses awful grief that is as powerful and effective a moment as you’re going to see in a horror movie. She nails it.
And Lulu Wilson is absolutely creepy as the possessed little child Doris. In fact, she has most of the best scenes in the film, from the way she delivers her unsettling dialogue, like when she talks to Lina’s boyfriend about what it feels like to be strangled to death, to the special effects-enhanced scenes where she’s crawling across walls and ceilings. Wilson is no stranger to this kind of role. She played a similar part in DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). In that movie, she was a police detective’s daughter who also was the target of sinister supernatual forces.
Henry Thomas makes for a sincere and credible Father Tom. Thomas of course is famous for his childhood role as Elliott in E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982). Oftentimes in the movies, priests are portrayed as over-the-top ministers, going on about hellfire and brimstone and saying things like “my child,” and “my son.” Here, Thomas makes Father Tom a rather level-headed cinematic clergyman.
I was also impressed that three of the main characters in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL were women. While this is happening more often in the movies, it’s still not happening enough.
Which leads me to the second thing I enjoyed about this one, the screenplay by director Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Flanagan and Howard create sincere and believable characters, and so we care what happens to these folks.
And as a director, Mike Flanagan also does a nice job here. The film looks good and captures the 1965 setting nicely. Flanagan also gets the scares and suspense scenes right. There are plenty of creative scary scenes, enough to make the audience jump on occasion. Flanagan also directed HUSH (2016), a low-budget horror movie that earned only a small release which I reviewed earlier this year. While not a masterpiece, HUSH was a very stylish thriller about a deaf woman terrorized by a violent killer stalking her isolated home. Mike Flanagan is definitely a director to watch.
So, with all these positives, why didn’t I absolutely love OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL?
For the simple reason that I didn’t believe any of it. Now, while Flanagan and Howard and the actors created believable characters, the story they found themselves in was not believable. Not even close.
First of all, it’s about a ouija board. Like most everyone else, as a kid, I played with a ouija board. Did anything sinister happen? Nope. So, the idea that a ouija board packaged as a family game bought at a store is something sinister just doesn’t work for me. Not on its own. Could a well-written script make me believe otherwise? Certainly! But as strong as this screenplay was in terms of character development, no effort seems to have gone into making the ouija board stand out as a conduit of evil. The idea by its lonesome doesn’t cut it. Perhaps if there was something special about this particular ouija board which Alice and her family purchased, but that’s not the case here.
Also, at times, with its blatant product placement, the film plays like a glorified commercial for Hasbro. I don’t like commercials, and so if your movie plays like one, chances are I’m not going to like it.
The other strike against OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is that once it enters its demon storyline, it becomes a straighforward retread of films like INSIDIOUS (2010) and THE CONJURING (2013). OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL offers nothing new in the demon department. In spite of some creative scare scenes, it’s another case of been there, done that.
At the end of the day, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is a well-acted, creatively directed horror movie that suffers from its tie-in with a popular board game, the ouija board, and from the unoriginal path it takes once it enters its demon storyline.
It has its moments, but the bottom line is there’s not much original or evil about it.