PLOT: A single mother and her two young daughters run a fortune telling parlor in 1967 Los Angeles. When the new fad of a Ouija board is brought into the home, a malefic spirit begins to communicate with the youngest daughter and threaten all she comes into contact with.
REVIEW: Mike Flanagan. It's a name ardent horror connoisseurs and genuine genre junkies ought to commit to memory right about now, if you hadn't already, as the man has officially graduated from a sort of wunderkind student filmmaker who toiled in TV for a couple of years, to an undeniably authorial force in both indie and studio fright-flicks alike. Five varietal features written and directed in as many years, all with respectable results - ABSENTIA, OCULUS, HUSH, BEFORE I WAKE, and now, with OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL - Flanagan has not only put forth one of the scariest and sturdiest PG-13 horror flicks of recent memory, but also one of the preeminent franchise prequels as well. Hell, it's not stretch to say, for a movie dubiously based on a childhood board-game, OUIJA 2 is likely the best one since CLUE in 1985 and WITCHBOARD in 1986. What's more, ORIGIN OF EVIL is unquantifiably more frightful and leaps and bounds more engrossing than its paltry 2014 predecessor. Go see this movie this Halloween!
We're welcomed to groovy 1967 Los Angeles. Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two young daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), are a family of fortune-telling hucksters who, while empathetically grieving for the death of their own father and husband, willingly scam guests into believing they can communicate with deceased loved ones. "We offer closure," Alice ensures, even if it calls for Doris to hide in the piano and Lena to jump out from behind a darkened scrim to frighten folks into belief. But their tricks are starting to show, if not grow a bit stale. Looking to revamp the act, Lena plays a newly marketed game of Ouija at a party, and while she doesn't lend credence in it for a second, she thinks it the perfect vessel to use in her family's fortune telling home-business. Alice procures the "mystical oracle" Ouija board, soon scheming ways to manipulate it with her legs under the table to further trick people. Then, to make sure the board is indeed just a game, she tries to contact her dead hubby Roger. But before the triangulated piece moves to affirm "No", he isn't present, young Doris utters as an uncontrollable conduit. "I'm here."
Indeed. A malefic presence is communicating with the family through the 9 year old Doris, not just the board. Alice wants to believe it's truly Roger who is present, but Lina is far too smart to buy into it. She not only debunks the Ouija in general, she maintains that there is no possible way that her father would so creepily alter Doris' core-being simply to lend solace to the bereaved. As Doris grows more sinister - scrawling feverishly in cursive without looking at the page, speaking in tongues, rolling her eyes white into the back of her head, etc. Lina seeks the advice of Father Tom (Henry Thomas), head of the Catholic school the girls attend. The equally grieving Tom, who recently lost his wife, is able to get Doris' cryptic Polish handwriting translated. The explanation that follows - mere talking mind you - is among the most pinning-and-needling, goose-bump inducing moments in the film, particularly when immediately followed by a smash-cut of Doris, mouth agape, eyes-whitened on the sofa...deep in the throes of evil possession. Not to betray too much, but a tormented spirit from WWII named Marcus has taken refuge in the Zander home and found, in Doris, a vessel to voice unspeakable evil.
What really stands out about ORIGIN OF EVIL is just how respectfully and dignified Flanagan treats the material. This is a tautly plotted, assiduously scripted horror movie that treats its subject matter seriously, so much so that it's quite obvious Flanagan is a truly knowledgeable horror film fan who's taken the time, care and craft to ensure likeminded horror-heads like us aren't let down. This isn't a chintzily venal, exploitative cash-grab like the first film was...the kind littered with laughable horror clichés and rote plot contrivances. No, this is a superior sequel in every filmmaking facet, a surprisingly well thought out movie that takes it's time to slowly mount a level of dreadful tension and tightly coil your nerves until an absolutely manic and maniacal eruption caps off the final 20-30 minutes. Sure there are a few familiar horror images and monastic jump-scares, that, for a movie with ORIGIN in the title, aren't terribly new. Crawling on ceilings and walls, odd body contortions, exorcistic flirtation, etc. But the way in which Flanagan deftly directs his PG-13 scenes to the unnerving utmost - peripheral menace in the corners of the frame, little Doris staring off in the background, or whispering rabidly, suddenly appearing from the shadows, etc. - it's all so expertly handled.
So too is the actual origin story. By taking us back to the 60s, doing so with enriched period detail, and giving us a glimpse into the lives of not just a sympathetically grieving family, but a family of entrepreneurial fibbers, we get a chance to identify with real people, not cardboard cutouts of unidentifiable perfection. The introduction to the Ouija board in this context feels natural, not extrinsic, and therefore lays the groundwork for what ultimately plays as a credibly conveyed and superbly acted (especially the kids) horror story. The characters feel real, their actions and motivations rationally justified, all of which pays off devastatingly when the unremitting terror strikes down in the final third. What's more, for a major studio movie (Universal), the narrative does not conclude with a pat, happy Hollywood ending, an aspect of the flick I too have great affection for. Somehow, by setting the movie in the 60s, it not only affords for the countercultural fashion and stylings, it reminds us of the kinds of movies major studios used to make, the kind they have no reason not to make now, in 2016, and onward. This is a major PG-13 horror flick cut against the grain!