Ouija, the 2014 horror film about a duo of girls who get in over their heads with a couple of vicious members of the undead, was a flimsy, poorly directed, predictable mess of a movie. But because we horror fans are nothing if not suckers for flimsy stories about the vicious undead, it still reaped a hefty profit, which is why we now have a Ouija prequel.
Though it’s been greatly anticipated by horror fans and lightly praised by critics, Ouija: Origin of Evil, released in theaters Friday, is pretty much more of the same, but with a bigger budget and far more serious treatment. None of this can save it from being a largely silly, disjointed construction of run-of-the-mill scares and awkward priest jokes, but at least director Mike Flanagan gives it his best shot, which is more than we can say of his predecessor.
Ouija: Origin of Evil runs on ’60s nostalgia and ridiculous plot decisions
In Ouija, the backstory of present-day events introduced us to a doomed family of three from the past: a single mother, Alice (Elizabeth Reaser, whom Mad Men fans will recognize from yet another ’60s nostalgia trip), and her two children, teen Pauline (the wonderful Annalise Basso, who previously worked with Flanagan on his smart, if somewhat overrated, horror film Oculus) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), a beatifically blond child who serves as a throwback to Poltergeist’s Carol Anne in a largely open-mouthed performance.
The prequel takes us back to 1967 and their lives as frauds and psychic scammers. Alice has trained her daughters to help defraud clients — or, as she calls it, giving the spirits a slight nudge. Alice has so thoroughly convinced herself that what she’s doing is justified (in reality, psychics are horrible) that when Doris begins showing signs of actual spirit communication, she’s overjoyed rather than properly alarmed.
The catalyst for her daughter’s new abilities is, of course, a Ouija board (conveniently shown multiple times atop a number of other Hasbro board games). Doris is instantly attuned to the board, so much so that she can immediately move it with her mind.
You’d think things would quickly devolve from there, especially since Doris is fully possessed in short order. But the film takes its time meandering through various subplots: Pauline’s romance with a forgettable upperclassman, Doris’s run-in with some quickly dispatched bullies, and, most awkwardly, Alice’s date with the girls’ principal, Father Morgan (Henry Thomas), in a scene that plays out like a weird “psychic and a priest walk into a restaurant” joke.
Around these moments, the film feels largely disjointed, with various jump scares strung together without too much concern for narrative continuity. At one point, a jump cut from one scene to a completely different one is used as a jump scare, and while this tactic provoked the desired response in the audience I saw the film with, it was also lazy and uninspired.
Also lazy and uninspired are the characters themselves, who seem to move through their lives toward their rapidly approaching doom without any sense of urgency whatsoever. Alice is more interested in flirting with a priest than listening to what he has to say about her daughters and their obvious psychological collapse; when he finally does arrive on the scene, Father Morgan inexplicably takes his sweet time before finally getting around to explaining that Doris might be possessed. Father Morgan, you are no Father Merrin.
Origin of Evil sees the Ouija spirits casually manipulating characters, targeting them without any follow-through, and leading them to make nonsensical decisions out of nowhere. It’s all so silly and annoying that by the time we finally get around to learning who is possessing Doris, the revelation that it’s a generic horror cliché isn’t even insulting — because to be insulted, we’d have to believe this film was trying to do more than sell tickets.
Though popular, director Flanagan seems to have learned little from his previous films
The frustrating thing about Origin of Evil is that Flanagan clearly has the makings of a great director. But just as he’s done with all three of his previous films — the crowdfunded Absentia, cult hit Occulus, and this year’s popular but flawed Hush — he seems to cut corners at the expense of his film’s overall effectiveness, and rely on ridiculous character decisions to drive the plot.
Given the positive critical reaction to Flanagan’s earlier films, the impulse to hand him much larger projects is understandable. But the truth is that despite passable work as an indie director, Flanagan doesn’t have the range to make Origin of Evil either the Spielberg homage he clearly wants it to be or a gripping family-driven prequel along the lines of the fantastic Paranormal Activity 3. The film’s internal logic is too ill-conceived, its overall direction too unfocused.
For instance, Origin of Evil takes its time wooing the viewer with heavy doses of aesthetic charm and warm ’60s nostalgia, but fails to instill the house the girls live in with any sense of dread, or even any particular atmosphere — even though, we’re ultimately told, it’s been haunted by a litany of spirits for several decades.
Likewise, the relationship between mother and daughters is barely touched on outside of the conflict that unites them; when Pauline dramatically declares she won’t leave her abruptly homicidal sister, it’s as silly as everything else about the story because we have no idea why the hell not. When Father Morgan jokingly declares that he’s sad he became a priest before meeting the attractive psychic, we’re hoping the Ouija spirits will call him on it later, because what a dick. But this and multiple other moments of characterization and plot are raised and discarded, because the movie, like its characters, doesn’t quite have its shit together.
If Origin of Evil offers anything original in terms of horror tropes or conventions outside the usual coterie of jump scares and creepy children making ghoulish faces, it might be an outstanding jaunt through demonland. But mostly it’s just, well, really silly. The film’s one truly inspired sequence occurs at its climax, and registers as a beautifully dark homage to Guillermo del Toro and a litany of Asian ghost stories; it would have been nice if the rest of the movie had supported this type of ghost story. Instead, it feels out of place in this mess of a movie, which fizzles out to a weak and predictable ending.
Though it’s best watched without any thought given to its mediocre forerunner, Origin of Evil ultimately fails to deliver anything that improves on the flimsy mechanisms and disjointed plotting of its predecessor. We’d hoped for better, but alas, sometimes the spirits just don’t communicate.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is playing in theaters throughout the country.