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A hauntingly old-fashioned atmosphere infuses Ouija: Origin of Evil, a superior prequel to the 2014 horror film which used the parlor board game as its inspiration. Set nearly 50 years earlier, with its visual style evocatively rendering its period setting, the film delivers a satisfying quotient of scares before lapsing into genre clichés in its final act.
Taking place in 1967, the story concerns the Zander family, including widowed mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser); teen daughter Paulina, known as Lina (Annalise Basso); and 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson).
Alice runs a fake medium business out of her home, using her daughters as confederates to help fool her bereaved clients with illusions simulating contact from the dead. The financially struggling single mother doesn’t think of herself as conning her clients, but rather comforting them in their time of need.
One day Alice comes home bearing “a new prop for work” in the form of a Ouija board. That Alice isn’t entirely cynical about her vocation is made clear when she makes a half-hearted attempt to contact her late husband using the board, with disappointing results.
But the Ouija board soon proves itself a genuine conduit to the spirit world, with little Doris becoming possessed by an entity that clearly has malevolent intentions. With the little girl writing copiously in Polish and undergoing disturbing physical transformations, the situation attracts the concern of Father Tom (Henry Thomas), the principal of her Catholic school. He comes to the Zander home to investigate, and when he stands outside the house, wearing a hat and clutching a small bag, his silhouette provides a sly visual allusion to The Exorcist.
Director/screenwriter Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) slowly ratchets up the tension, forgoing a heavy reliance on cheap jump scares (not that there aren’t a few). Infused with psychological complexity and nuanced characterizations, Ouija: Origin of Evil falters only in the final section, featuring a demon looking like a renegade member of Blue Man Group and a backstory involving the Holocaust that feels wholly unearned.
Both Reaser and Thomas provide unexpected depths to what could have been schematic roles, and the younger performers are even better. Basso vividly conveys her character’s teenage angst, and Wilson is particularly impressive as the possessed little girl who becomes increasingly frightening. When the latter delivers a chillingly detailed description of what it feels like to be strangled to death, it makes you hope that the production staff included an on-set psychological counselor.
The visually sumptuous film, featuring Michael Fimognari’s autumnal cinematography and Patricio M. Farrell’s perfectly vintage-looking sets and costumes, actually appears to date from the period in which it’s set. The clever credit sequences, employing the old Universal logo and inspired by Ouija board graphics, are another plus.
The film certainly works as a stand-alone story, but fans of the 2014 predecessor should stick around through the end credits, when the narrative connection between the two is revealed in a short sequence featuring veteran horror film actress Lin Shaye.
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Production companies: Allspark Pictures, Blumhouse Productions, Hasbro, Platinum Dunes
Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Doug Jones
Director-editor: Mike Flanagan
Screenwriters: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Producers: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Jason Blum, Brian Goldner, Stephen Davis
Executive producers: Couper Samuelson, Jeanette Volturno, Trevor Macy, Victor Ho
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Patrcio M. Farrell
Costume designer: Lynn Falconer
Composer: The Newton Brothers
Casting: Terri Taylor
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes