Review: Ouija: Origin of Evil
PLOT: A widowed mother of two girls working as a fraudulent medium is horrified when the use of a ouija board appears to bring evil spirits into her home.
REVIEW: I'm not necessarily all in on the Mike Flanagan bandwagon just yet, but it's hard not to want to flag it down after seeing OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, a prequel with almost literally no right to be as effective as it is. Coming two years after the woefully uninteresting OUIJA (which is everything wrong with PG-13 horror movies), ORIGIN OF EVIL shakes up the burgeoning franchise with an atmospheric 60s aesthetic, sympathetic characters and some seriously nerve-jangling scares. It's not high art, nor is it a modern classic, but as far as an enjoyable haunted house experience goes, ORIGIN: ORIGIN OF EVIL gets the job done, and well.
Preferring a vibe closer to that of the CONJURING films than that of its predecessor (with many tips of the hat to THE EXORCIST as well), Flanagan's film details the plight of the Zander family. Mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is a widow with two pleasant - if mildly troubled - daughters, teenaged Paulina (Annalise Basso) and pre-teen Doris (Lulu Wilson), and she's trying to make ends meet scamming people as a medium who speaks to their dead relatives. (To soften this blow, however, Alice only tells them positive things in order to provide closure). Acting on a tip from her daughter, Alice decides to bring a ouija board into the mix, the better to bring new energy to her act. And even though this family is so used to the unlikelihood of actually contacting the dead, they ultimately use the board to attempt to speak with the deceased family patriarch. This proves to be a mistake.
As inevitable supernatural forces enter the picture, young Doris gains new "friends" that she talks to; one even makes itself home within her. Flanagan knows we've seen the old "creepy girl is now possessed and talking to ghosts" thing before, so he livens the proceedings up with some deliciously wild moments, like when Doris is literally entered by a spectre, or when she begins making very unnerving facial expressions. Flanagan is very much aided by young Wilson, who instantly earns a spot in the Creepy Horror Kids Hall of Fame with a performance filled with strange quirks and believably evil glares. The rest of the cast is very good, but Wilson steals the show effortlessly.
ORIGIN OF EVIL will not work so well when its plot is scrutinized. The explanation, such as it is, for the weird goings-on is fairly nonsensical; I still don't think I really understand the motivations of its villains. (The way it ties into OUIJA is also a hinderance; I wish Flanagan had been free to make his own movie completely. Besides, does anyone like that film enough to care whether or not ORIGIN OF EVIL actually connects to it?) Indeed, it's a movie that works best when it's showing, not telling, and as far as pure visceral horror goes, the film brings the goods, especially in its jolt-a-minute third act, which has at least two truly exceptional freakout moments. (For what it's worth, the preview audience I saw this with screamed like I've never quite heard before.) I may be overselling it because everyone's tolerance for these kinds of jump scares is different, but I was smiling ear to ear as ORIGIN OF EVIL continued to successfully jolt me, right up until its surprisingly grim finale.
For Flanagan, the film is nothing short of a win. His first two features, ABSENTIA and OCULUS, proved he's a director who can pair wickedly inventive ideas with low budgets. His followup to OCULUS, BEFORE I WAKE, is currently mired in purgatory thanks to its distributor's financial troubles (have heard good things, though), while this summer's HUSH, released on Netflix, garnered very enthusiastic reviews across the board. That film I wasn't too crazy about, but ORIGIN OF EVIL certainly brings Flanagan back to the forefront of interesting names working in the genre today.