Thanks to the efforts of its talented cast and crew, Ouija: Origin of Evil is more solid horror film than soulless franchise continuation.
Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is a widow living in Los Angeles circa 1967 with her two daughters: the teenaged Paulina (Annalise Basso) and her younger sister, Doris (Lulu Wilson). While she makes money by performing fake seances for grieving people seeking to contact their departed loved ones from beyond the grave, Alice is struggling financially and still grieving over the death of her husband - at the same time, doing her best to raise her two children. Acting on something of a whim, Alice thus ends up taking Paulina's advice and buys a Ouija board to incorporate into her business, in the hopes of attracting more customers.
Alice and Paulina are then shocked to discover that Doris, upon using the Ouija board herself, can actually talk to the dead - and in doing so, is able to help her family deal with their money problems (in more ways than one). However, it soon starts to become clear that Doris' newfound "friends" from the other side are not what they seem... and that the only thing more dangerous than the mysterious spirits whom the youngest Zander daughter has been communicating with, might be Doris herself.
A prequel to the critically-maligned 2014 Ouija board game movie, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a surprisingly solid supernatural horror drama/thriller - considering that it easily could have been (and most people were probably expecting it to be) a hollow effort to transform a half-baked intellectual property adaptation into a full-fledged franchise. Credit for that belong in no small amount to Origin of Evil co-writer/director Mike Flanagan, a filmmaker who has made a name for himself as a horror director in recent years thanks to his critically-acclaimed work on Hush and, in particular, Oculus.
As a result of this - in Flanagan's hands, Ouija: Origin of Evil makes for an unexpectedly effective homage to the now-classic horror movies that were released in the 1960s and '70s (The Omen in particular and its version of the "evil child" trope hangs heavy over Origin of Evil's head). This starts from the film's very beginning, as Origin of Evil opens with the retro version of the Universal Pictures logo, and continues with the design of the over-arching narrative; one that takes an old-fashioned slow-buildup approach, as carefully guided by Flanagan and his frequent co-writer, Jeff Howard. At the same time admittedly, Origin of Evil's commitment to serving the Ouija franchise do hold it back from scaling the same heights as the best horror offerings released this year so far.
When it comes down to it, the actual tie-in to the Ouija board game in Origin of Evil is pretty flimsy. The larger mythology plotted out by Flanagan and Howard here (and used to drive the story forward) could have easily stood on its own - without the board's inclusion. The mass-produced Ouija board is equally flimsy as a plot device - raising more questions about how, exactly, the board functions than it answers. Nevertheless, the family-in-peril storyline at the heart of Ouija: Origin of Evil is good enough to make up for the less-impressive Ouija-related story elements that have to be included here for the sake of the franchise.
Moreover, as was indicated before, Ouija: Origin of Evil has fun imitating some of the popular stylistic elements among horror films that were being released around the time of the movie's historical backdrop - including, big '60s-style title font and soft focus visuals. However, Flanagan and the movie's director of photography, Michael Fimognari (another frequent Flanagan collaborator), don't go overboard with the flourishes here and add enough modern polish to make Origin of Evil feel like more than a kitschy imitation of '60s horror cinema.
Although the film succeeds more at conjuring up creepy moments and unnerving individual camera shots than creating equally-unsettling scary sequences (the kind that someone like James Wan excels at), Origin of Evil is buoyed in the scares department by the performance from Lulu Wilson as Doris. In fact, many of the film's most memorably spooky and darkly-funny moments comes from Wilson during the scenes where she isn't assisted by freaky practical or digital effects. While Doris ultimately boils down to a variation on the "evil child" archetype, she's a memorable variation on the theme too.
Elisabeth Reaser (The Twilight Saga), by comparison, does fine work as Alice Zander - thought her character's motivations and actions more than stretch credibility at times, in order to serve the larger plot and bring Origin of Evil to the inevitable end point that it has to reach, in order to set-up the first Ouija movie. The same goes for Annalise Basso (who plays the younger version of Karen Gillan's character in Oculus) as Paulina, a regular teenager whose own arc in the story isn't as well-developed as it could have been, had the first Ouija installment not already established what her final destination is.
Nevertheless, these three leads form a nice family dynamic together and give Origin of Evil an emotional core - to go along with all of its scares and foundation-laying for the first installment in the Ouija franchise. The rest of the cast only includes two prominent supporting players in Parker Mack (Faking It) and Henry Thomas (Betrayal) as, respectively, Paulina's love interest Mikey and Father Tom, a widower himself who has semi-romantic tension with Alice. Of the pair, Henry has the larger impact on the film's story proceedings - those his primary function is to move the plot forward, as Father Tom himself doesn't go on much of a spiritual (or physical) journey in Origin of Evil.
Thanks to the efforts of its talented cast and crew, Ouija: Origin of Evil is more solid horror film than soulless franchise continuation. Still, although the movie is better than one would expect a Ouija prequel to be, it doesn't exactly make the case that this property should live on; rather, it suggest its director and cast would be better off working on material with fewer built-in creative restrictions. All in all, though, Origin of Evil is good Halloween season entertainment - and since the prequel can be enjoyed as a standalone movie (the film's post-credits scene aside), watching the first Ouija ahead of time isn't a necessity. Origin of Evil suggests that even apparent cash-grab horror franchise installments can turn out well, with the right director onboard; perhaps there's hope for Lights Out director David F. Sandberg's Annabelle 2 yet.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 99 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements.
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