24 hours ago I had no intention of ever seeing Ouija: Origin of Evil, a prequel to a fairly terrible horror film. Then I discovered Origin of Evil was written, directed and edited by Mike Flanagan. The Occulus (aka the haunted mirror movie starring Karen Gillan) and Hush (aka the best horror movie on Netflix not enough people know about) guy? Blumhouse got him to make the Ouija prequel? Well, holy shit. Origin of Evil, you just got my money. Occulus and Hush are not perfect films, but they are each the product of impressive craftmanship, with Flanagan’s editing in Occulus being genuinely Oscar-worthy. At this point, his body of work is such that anything he does is worth checking out.
And for the majority of Origin of Evil Flanagan pulls off the impossible, turning a prequel no one asked for into one of the more confident horror fims of the year. There’s nothing as technically impressive as Occulus‘ collision of past and present, where that film’s central brother and sister came face to face with their younger selves, or Hush‘s ingenious sound design, brilliantly accentuating that film’s central conflict between a housebound deaf woman and her sadistic attacker. However, there’s an intriguing and rather welcome old-fashioned feel to Origin of Evil, which began when Flanagan threw down the following challenge to Ouija producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller: “I want to make a movie set in 1967 and I want it to be shot like a movie in 1967.”
He probably also added, “And don’t tell me period horror movies don’t sell because look at The Conjuring!”
As such, Origin of Evil, as co-written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, is indeed a movie set in 1967 which mimics the title font, avante garde camera movements and ultra slow burn of horror films of the era (1963’s The Haunting comes to mind).
The story is relatively simple: A phony medium/fortune teller named Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) buys a Ouija board to spice up her act, but in so doing she unwittingly opens a supernatural door to some nasty demons and ghosts who take an instant interest in Doris (Lulu Wilson), her youngest daughter. Doris’ older sister Lina (Annalise Brasso) is the first to notice the signs that something has gone wrong, and she turns to her Catholic high school principal/pastor (Henry Thomas) for help.
That’s about it, really. There’s also an older boy trying very hard to make Lina his girlfriend on the periphery of the story, and the emotional throughline involves Alice and the girls struggling to find closure while still mourning the recently deceased head of their family, who we eventually learn was killed by a drunk driver. The central, clever twist of Flanagan and Howard’s script is that the fraud (i.e., Alice) who preyed upon people’s need for closure is then conned herself in exactly the same way by
The central, clever twist of Flanagan and Howard’s script is the fraud (i.e., Alice) who preyed upon people’s need for closure is then conned herself in exactly the same way by mischievous demons speaking through her daughter. The central flaw, though, is the script must tie everything back to that damn ouija board long after it has outlived its narrative usefulness. It’s an absolute hoot watching Doris hold court like a little, white Oda Mae Brown while channeling ghosts through the Ouija board in the mid-section of the film, at which point Doris is still herself and Alice believes the board to be a good thing. However, as the story morphs into a more traditional haunting/possession the strain of “You remember this is still a Ouija movie, right?” begins to show.
We’re approximately an hour and 20 minutes into Origin of Evil. Father Tom has just dropped an exposition bomb on Alice and Lina, revealing the horrid, haunted history of their house and how that history relates to the strange behavior Doris has been exhibiting. Suddenly, Tom, Alice and Lina encounter [spoiler] downstairs, but before they can even react to that they hear Doris calling for help from the basement as an old German song suddenly starts playing from who knows where and on God knows what. Alice commands Lina to get the hell out of the house and go run for help, but Lina won’t budge, arguing she wants to save her sister and is afraid splitting up would be the worst idea ever. “Okay,” Alice concedes before adding, “But if we’re going down there we’re taking that damn board with us and throwing it in the furnace.”
“Wait, what is she talking about?” you think before remembering that you’re watching a Ouija movie even though that board hasn’t been referenced in at least 5 minutes and is so clearly not a pressing concern anymore. Yet no matter how inorganic or awkward the transition might be everything has to ultimately circle back to the ouija board. But, honestly, by the end who the heck cares about the ouija board? The movie doesn’t need it anymore, unless it’s going to treat the board like the key to closing the door to the other side and saving Doris. It doesn’t, though. Not really.
Of course, the final act actually has lots of other problems, such as an awkwardly staged final confrontation, audience-insulting flashbacks to earlier scenes in the film to make sure everyone and their dog gets the point and a final stinger which produces more unintentional laughs than scares. It’s as if the weight of tieing everything, including the ouija board, together finally proved to be too much for Flanagan and crew, but it was an admirable effort.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ouija: Origin of Evil is a lesser Conjuring with a novelty board game-related twist, but there are worst things to be. It’s better than anyone expected, yet it’s also not as good as it could have been. There’s a perfectly solid, old-fashioned haunted house/possession movie dying to break out from under the narrative constraints of constantly having to circle back to the ouija board. As a result, the effective slow build in the first half of the film devolves into a whole lot of nonsense in the final act, but, hey, by then you’ve already been startled by a couple of quality jumpscares.