No telling what you’ll see.
Jason Blum and the folks at Blumhouse pictures know how to make a profitable movie. They take a veteran director, a script, and a star or two and they make a horror flick as cheap as they can. Throw in some clever marketing and it’s hard not to have the first weekend grosses put the film into profit. The people who work on the film keep coming back because Blum is apparently not stingy about sharing the profits. Fans keep coming back because Blum has an eye for horror talent.
Unsurprisingly, sequels play a big role in the Blumhouse plan. If Blum and his compatriots can trade on the name of a success like The Purge, then so much the better. But unlike a lot of sequel-factories of the past, Blumhouse is also in the business of empowering filmmakers. So rather than making a copy-cat film with The Purge 2 or Sinister 2, those filmmakers got to use the excuse of a sequel as a Trojan horse to tell different stories rather than just remaking the previous films with a different cast.
That’s how Mike Flanagan got involved with the Blumhouse brand. The horror auteur was fresh off the success of Oculus, with several ideas in the pipeline (Hush landed at Netflix, while Before I Wake was mired in distribution trouble). Blum approached Flanagan with the idea of a sequel to the tepidly-received Ouija (my review, amongst others, was not kind). The catch was that Flanagan could make just about any film he wanted, as long as it had Ouija in the title and justified the title with some connection to the infamous spirit board.
Flanagan’s response is Oujia: Origin of Evil, a prequel that follows the Zander family in the 1960s. The mother (Elizabeth Reaser, Young Adult) runs a rocky business providing (fake) seances with the help of her daughters Lina (Annalise Basso, Oculus) and Doris (Lulu Wilson, Annabelle 2). When Doris decides to play with a Ouija board by herself, things begin to unravel.
On the surface, Ouija: Origin of Evil shares a lot in common with recent horror films. Like too many recent films to name, it’s about a family beset by evil spirits. Like The Conjuring, it’s got a retro vibe provided by the film’s setting in 1967. And, of course, it’s got the ubiquitous jump scares.
Those similarities feel intention. Mike Flanagan is a student of the horror film, and he knows how to deliver terror, dread, and jump scares in equal measure. He understands that audiences need some predictable elements to allow themselves to feel comfortable enough to be scared.
But what sets Mike Flanagan (and Ouija) apart is the fact that Flanagan doesn’t just stop at these surface-level similarities. Lots of films have aped the “possessed little girl” storyline in the last decade. Sometimes it works, more often it gets boring. The mistake so many filmmakers make is to stop there, with the little girl in danger. What Flanagan realizes is that this story can be a Trojan horse to tell a different story, or at the very least the same story with more thematic undercurrents.
Based purely on his films, Flanagan is dealing with some abandonment issues. In film after film, characters are dealing with the loss of someone close to them. In Absentia it’s a literal disappearance. In Oculus it’s the betrayal of the parents because of the mirror. In Hush it’s a loss of hearing. And in Ouija it’s the loss of the father by the Zander family. Unlike a lot of horror, which uses a parental death as a background element to add some extra pathos, Ouija feels like a dramatic film about loss that happens to get interrupted by horror element.
This means the Zander family’s plight feels real and grounded, making the horror elements that much more horrifying. It helps that Flanagan knows how to choose a cast. Reaser as the mother struggling to provide for her girls by hosting fake séances is devastatingly believable. Annalise Basso is just as good as the older sister, struggling with the loss of her father but also trying to be strong for her mother. Lulu Wilson is great as the increasingly-creepy Doris.
The film’s Blu-ray does a great job as well. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is digitally source and features strong detail. The period clothing and set design are showcased, as is the film’s retro color scheme. The only significant problem is a bit of noise (that may be trying to mimic the look of film) that appears more frequently as the film gets darker. But it’s not particularly distracting, even as it keeps the film from being pristine. The set’s DTS-HD 5.1 track is equally impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, with the surrounds getting used to creepy effect. There’s plenty of opportunities for the track to shine, as the jump scares and more tense scenes feature more volume and a variety of directional effects.
Extras start with a solid commentary track from Flanagan. He’s well-versed in horror and talks about his movie both in terms of production and the traits it shares with the genre. We also get four featurettes that cover the film’s making-of, its location, and the character of Doris. Seventeen minutes of deleted scenes round out the disc. Fans also get a DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy of the film as well.
Of course not everything works about Ouija: Origin of Evil. The whole premise is a bit hokey and can never quite overcome the fact that it’s a film based on a board game. There are definitely some moments of stupidity from the characters as well as a few well-worn moments that will have veteran viewers shaking their heads.
Surprisingly, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a pretty decent horror film. Viewers should skip the first Ouija film and instead give Flanagan’s flick a spin. It’s got a retro vibe, surprising depth, and solid performances.