It’s a prequel to a terrible horror movie about a demonic board game, so of course Ouija: Origin of Evil is pretty great, right? Right.
Hamstrung only by a somewhat confused final act that’s beholden to the mythology established in 2014’s dreadful Ouija, this prequel stands out thanks to the assured direction of Mike Flanagan and performances that sell the drama along with the dread. Though there’s not a whole lot that’s wildly original here, the craft makes the tropes work, getting us invested and effectively creeping us out.
It’s 1967 Los Angeles and widow Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) works with her two daughters, teenager Paulina (Annalise Basso) and 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson), as fraudulent mediums. They aren’t necessarily scammers, though, refusing payment in order to give clients peace of mind. Not a good strategy to pay the bills, however, and foreclosure looms. Adding a Ouija board to their repertoire, the ladies promptly break at least one of the three rules of gameplay and soon the spirit world is invading their home. Little Doris becomes a portal, and a host for a malevolent ghoul with bad intentions.
Prior to the haunting and possession, Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard judiciously establish characters, their fears, and the impending threat. When Paulina sneaks out to attend a party, the act serves multiple purposes. First, it introduces the Ouija board, with a group of teenagers working the planchette. The way the scene is staged, with the teens playing in front of a large sliding glass door reflecting the waves of the pool outside, sets an eerie mood. When a disappointed Alice picks her daughter up, we see the stress in their relationship and the familial upheaval in the wake of the patriarch’s tragic death.
There are narrative moments throughout that aren’t necessary to get to the scares, but they’re used to deepen the alarm by creating three-dimensional characters. A dinner quasi-date with Alice and Tom (Henry Thomas), a widower turned priest at the girls’ catholic school, wouldn’t appear in a lesser horror movie. Here, it’s used to build compassion.
Attention to detail extends to fashioning the fright. A grandfather clock ticks in the doomed home from the beginning of the film, and the chimes create a more sinister effect when the spirit invades Doris. The spooky child who sees/knows/hears “something” has been done to death, but it works here by limiting the body contortions and false jumps. Lulu Wilson helps matters with a more nuanced, layered performance than what’s typical in a standard role. Doris is a normal kid who’s plagued in ways those around her fail to understand…at first.
Her jaw dropping unnaturally to expose an exaggeratedly agape mouth is jolting, though it’s not as scary as a chilling speech to her older sister’s new boyfriend (Parker Mack) about what it’s like to be choked to death. When there are jump scares and they’re foreshadowed – like focusing on a door for several seconds, Flanagan conjures something unexpected. Origin of Evil even manages to weave in some humor, including a joke about not splitting up and Doris’ macabre dialogue delivered with a smile.
Now on a three-film roll with some unique successes – a movie about a haunted mirror (Oculus), a straight-to-Netflix home invasion thriller (Hush), and this prequel to a bad original – Mike Flanagan has established himself as an exciting voice in the genre and I’m looking forward to whatever’s next. Even if the Ouija series, which seemingly has nowhere to go from here, would somehow continue with him at the helm, I’d be game.