It’s 1965 and the Zander family is having a rough time. Mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is raising her two daughters alone following the death of her husband. Teenager Paulina (Annalise Basso), Lina for short, is a bit rebellious and likes to sneak out at night to hang with her friends. Doris (Lulu Wilson) is nine and is frequently picked on at school. Alice is a palm reader and works out of her home and, when they aren’t in school, the girls help with the con. At a friends’ house one night, Lina and the others play with a Ouija board and Lina suggests to her mom the next day to add it to her palm reading bit. Alice sees one in a store and buys it. She rigs the pointer so she can move it from under the table with magnets; but when she uses it to try and contact her husband in the parlor downstairs, Doris seems to go into a trance upstairs and answers the questions her mother is asking. Feeling a pull from the Ouija board, Doris comes down in the middle of the night and plays with it herself. She makes contact with the spirit world and looking through the lens in the pointer sees someone in the room with her. When the bank posts a foreclosure notice on their front door, Doris once again uses the Ouija board and gets a message about money buried in the wall of their basement. She finds it, gives it to her mother and shows her how she is able to use the board and make the pointer move without even touching it. Referring to the voices she hears as her friends, Doris once again uses the board in the middle of the night but this time, a dark, malevolent spirit invades her and takes over. What plans does this spirit have for little Doris and why does this spirit haunt this house?
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a prequel to 2014’s “Ouija.” A sequel/prequel was inevitable after the first made $100-million on a $5-million budget. That kind of return on investment in Hollywood is like blood in the water for sharks. The original film was poorly reviewed and even audiences seeing it only gave it a middling “C” on an A+ to F scale; however, the filmmakers have managed to fight off the urge to slap together something repetitive and actually given us a cheap horror movie that is superior to its predecessor.
While “Ouija: Origin of Evil” may be a bit hamstrung by the first film, limiting it in what could happen and being locked in to the ending, the writers have managed to give us some interesting characters and a story that makes far more sense than it should. Despite going a little off the rails during the ending and leaving an unanswered question or two, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” manages to be entertaining even if it isn’t terribly scary.
There are only a couple of jump-scares and the tension isn’t terribly thick through most of the film. Despite that, the movie works mostly because of the performances of Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson. Each actress transforms their character over time due to the circumstances each faces.
Basso’s Lina begins as a headstrong teenage girl exploring her boundaries and struggling against her mother’s rules while also trying to process the loss of her father. As the strangeness in the house increases, Lina becomes a caring daughter and sister reaching out to the closest thing she has to a father-figure, the principal at her Catholic high school, Father Tom (played by Henry Thomas). It feels like an honest and realistic portrayal of a bizarre situation. She isn’t a scream queen and she isn’t paralyzed by fear but there is both terror and bravery in Basso’s performance.
Lulu Wilson is amazing as the cursed Doris. Starting out as a sweet, innocent and sometimes goofy little girl, once Doris is possessed she becomes the epitome of the creepy kid. A speech she gives reciting what it’s like being strangled to death is done with seriousness punctuated by a cherubic smile. It’s the kind of performance that will make her friends look at her with a bit more concern in the future. Doris also is shown opening her mouth far more wide than his humanly possible. It’s a simple effect but it looks creepier each time you see it. Her descent into darkness is quick and more than a little bit painful to watch as this cute young girl is manipulated by forces beyond anyone’s control to take the lives of anyone close to her. It’s an incredible performance coming from someone so young.
It’s good that the movie has an interesting story and great performances because you won’t see “Ouija: Origin of Evil” because it is scary. It has only a few moments when it catches you off guard and none are the kind of scares that make you jump from your seat. You can see the scarier bits coming from a mile away. The way the shot is framed and the positioning of the characters telegraphs all the frightening points in the film. Actually one of the best scares comes early in the film and it has nothing to do with spirits. I’ll not spoil it for you but I think you’ll know it when you see it. It seems to be a difficult bit of alchemy to put together a good story AND some truly scary scenes in modern horror.
The ending of the film feels like an effort at grounding the movie with a sense of history. Again, I’m not going to give anything away but the writers have chosen to use an easy villain to blame for all the evil in the house. There were probably only a couple of ways they could go: What they chose, house built on a cemetery or Native American burial ground, cursed Ouija board or something else along those lines. Picking what they did certainly explains all the unsettled spirits in the house but it also feels a little lazy.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements. There is very little blood in the film in what is an effort to keep its PG-13 rating. We see a few people get thrown around by unseen forces. Teenagers are shown drinking alcohol. Skulls and bones are shown near the end of the film. One character dreams her mouth seals up by itself as she watches in the mirror. There are a couple of deaths shown on screen but none is grizzly. There is very little if any foul language.
A brief post credits scene ties this film to “Ouija.” Anyone who is coming into this movie that hasn’t seen the original won’t really understand what’s going on and doesn’t need to set through all the credits to see it. It is a nice nod however to fans of the first film and to the actress Lin Shaye who has made a thriving career from supporting roles in several recent horror films. I wouldn’t have been nearly as willing to stick around if the movie wasn’t much good; but despite a lack of scares and some questionable choices for the ending, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a surprisingly engaging and entertaining horror film.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” gets four stars out of five.
This week there is only one new film opening in theatres so I suppose this is what I will review next:
Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.