A creepy kid, a widow struggling with single parenthood, a gimmicky key to the spirit world, and a priest with a past who has all the answers. Anyone familiar with the canon of classic horror films from the late 1960s to 1980s will recognise these horror film elements, which are used here to make up the majority of Ouija: Origin of Evil. What starts off promisingly descends into a cliche-ridden schlock horror, but it delivers enough jump scares to satisfy the horror-film uninitiated.
A prequel to the 2014 film Ouija, the action is set in the mid-1960s so it’s all go-go boots, long hair, short skirts, and chats about a possible moon landing. Alice Zander is a widow adjusting to the sudden death of her husband in a car crash, and is struggling to make ends meet. She performs seances in her California home to earn cash, which are quickly revealed to be elaborate hoaxes performed with the help of her two daughters: teenager Lina, and sweet 9-year-old Doris. Alice’s scam is well-intentioned, as she firmly believes that she is providing comfort and closure to her clients.
Business is slow, so she buys a Ouija board to spice up her presentations. Little Doris is able to use the board to communicate with the dearly departed for real, and while this is initially seen as a positive thing, it quickly becomes apparent that these are not friendly ghosts.
Writer-director Mike Flanagan has some fun with the cultural signifiers of the setting, opening the film with the vintage Universal title card and using a deep focus cinematography and faux celluloid blips to give it a nostalgic feel. The relationship between Alice (played by Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters is given time to develop, giving the audience a chance to feel invested in their relationship, and this feels like a throwback to horror films of a bygone era like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen. Reaser exudes warmth and open-heartedness which make her an immensely likeable character, and the two actresses playing her daughters turn in engaging performances, as does Henry Thomas (of E.T: The Extra Terrestrial) as the priest with a past.
Unfortunately the tension which is built in the first half of the film is lost in the film’s final act, when it descends into a schlocky mess made up of horror film cliches: a sudden fluency in a foreign tongue? Check. Small child watching TV in a creepy manner? Check. Catholic priest explaining everything? You betcha.
Does it provide a couple of good jump scares? The spirits say: Y – E – S. But only if you haven’t seen The Exorcist or The Omen. Is it likely to become a classic? The spirits say: N – O.