A recent early review of Ouija: Origin of Evil—the unasked for sequel to 2014’s Ouija—by the A.V. Club is entitled “Ouija: Origin of Evil is much better than it needs to be.” Indeed, critic Katie Rife describes director Mike Flanagan’s (Oculus, Hush) film as “more thoughtful and more meticulously crafted than it needs to be.”
The remainder of the review is more conventional, about what one would expect from a horror movie review. What is most troubling about this review is the headline, which bases its assertion on the assumption that horror movie sequels are worthy of an almost automatic dismissal.
While, of course, the vast majority of horror sequels are schlock and awe one-upping contests or otherwise lazy cash grabs, that does not mean we as a cinephile community should be dismissive of these films on first contact.
Now, I realize the hypocrisy of these words coming from a critic who dismissed a horror sequel earlier this year (I later came to be proven wrong about the film in question). However, I think there is a difference between healthy skepticism and headlining a film’s sequel status as a setup for failure.
Rife’s point was likely to highlight the opinion (a warranted one) that Flanagan would best be utilized beyond fledgling studio franchises, but the assumption remains.It is an assumption that I think must be dispelled of.
I slip into these assuming tendencies myself, and it only works to setup unrealistic and prejudiced expectations of films before they even hit theaters. I’m not here to discredit Rife or the A.V. Club but merely to make a note of what environment Ouija 2 is being released under. And now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the film itself.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is a prequel to the 2014 film. In 1967, a family headed by a recently widowed mother, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), makes a living scamming people by running seances out of their home. Alice purchases a ouija board in order to spice up their tired routine. However, a real paranormal presence uses the board to take control of the family’s youngest daughter (Lulu Wilson).
Some critics have compared this film to The Conjuring. The period piece element to the film is certainly the major reason for this comparison. Both films utilize a retro aesthetic to attempt at a certain other-worldly atmosphere, an almost dreamlike detached realm that puts the average horror viewer off kilter.
Ouija 2‘s ’60s setting presents a certain innocence to its characters that modern day horror characters would likely lack. Of course, the characters are not alien, either. We get two daughters, one a wide-eyed child and one a rebellious teen, archetypes that we know and understand.
Beyond the characters and mise-en-scene, the period piece setting seems to be unnecessary. It is needed to fit into the Ouija universe—hardly of importance, as the film is trying very hard to stand alone from its predecessor—but the time period does not really play into the narrative in any important way.
The use of innocence in the film’s characterizations allows for a specific leverage. Innocence is something that can be exploited, betrayed. In the case of this film, there is the obvious betrayal of the innocence in a child, as there is the invocation of the common trope of making monstrous the childlike. Other characters, too, as in the mother’s belief in the paranormal and the elder daughters love interest with an older boy, provide a level of innocence as well. Both of these, in one form or another, are betrayed during the film, to varying effect.
There is also innocence in the film’s first act. It is innocence beset on the audience through mild humor involving the nature of the eponymous game. This, too, in predictable fashion, is betrayed by the board’s true intentions, which are initially serendipitous by turn out to be treacherous. While this is a tactic that will likely work with most theater-going audiences, with awkward laughs slowly being replaced by uneasy seat-shifting, it is hardly a novel technique by any means.
It is with these manipulations of innocence, as well as exquisite staging, that effective tension gets built. Many shots make great use of foreground and background action to create moments of eerie suspense. It brings a level of sophistication to cinematography that is not found in your average horror film.
Not all is perfect with Ouija: Origin of Evil, though. The house in which much of the film’s action takes place is interminably dark, even before any ominous presence takes root there. High contrast shadows cover the otherwise gorgeous set during scenes that are meant to take place in the morning.
Other times, light is overexposed through school windows while the room wherein a scene is taking place remains inexplicably dim. This lack of contrast in lighting does less for mood than it intends to and comes across more drab instead.
Another minor detail, while a fascinating homage to the days of celluloid, doesn’t seem fitting. The “cigarette burns” fit the diegetic time period, but it does not fit the style of the movie itself. Adding some grain, a real film feel, would have been an interesting choice. The blips meant to indicate a reel change, otherwise, appear silly over an obvious digital print.
Lulu Wilson, who plays the family’s youngest child, is impeccable for her age. She captures the blind innocence of a child perfectly, which is all the more unsettling when this whimsical naivety remains in her persona throughout the film.
Reaser and Annalise Basso also give strong performances, although Basso is given less to do here than in Flanagan’s previous film, Oculus.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is not really a Conjuring look alike. Its grasp of tension and atmosphere is not the same as in The Conjuring. Its reliance on the “rules” of the Ouija game and falling back on white-eyed, multi-layered demon voice cliches make it instead exactly what it appears to be: a Ouija sequel. It is a vastly superior Ouija movie, but it is one living in a lower tier all the same.
Superior craft, acting performances that aid the overall narrative work, and adequate atmosphere mark this film as a success. Reliance on convention in the climax and an overall drabness that dampens what would be an otherwise stellar production design prevent it from being truly distinguished from the mainstream horror lot.
Ouija: Origin of Evil: B
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)