Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Stiles White
Writer: Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Producer: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Jason Blum, Bennett Schneir
Stars: Olivia Cooke, Daren Kagasoff, Douglas Smith, Bianca Santos, Shelley Hennig, Ana Coto, Lin Shaye, Vivis, Robyn Lively, Matthew Settle
A Ouija board séance awakens a dark spirit that leads five fearful friends into a terrifying mystery.
Suspicious about her best friend Debbie’s unexpected suicide, Laine convinces her circle of closest confidantes to partake in a Ouija board session for summoning Deb’s ghost. What they unwittingly summon instead is a tormented spirit who has a mystery for the five friends to solve. The kind of mystery that involves secret cellar rooms, kooky visits with an elderly mental patient, cryptic warnings from an Hispanic housekeeper, and plenty of paranormal activity. Except each new stone they turn over doesn’t always bring them closer to uncovering the truth. It usually results in another teen turning up dead.
“Ouija” follows a formula closely for constructing tension and terror that should be traditionally effective, even if it puts a pickax into concrete when it comes to breaking new creative ground. The camera is always gradually gliding. Characters constantly creep with caution. Orchestral music whispers alongside every sliding on ice movement. Yet the horror is so hollow that “Ouija” never does anything more than sleepwalk through the motions of being a mediocre movie.
Conspiring against every attempt at establishing atmosphere are scenes whose reasons for inclusion are bigger mysteries than the one Laine and company dig into. A chain-gun of senselessness repeatedly shoots empty holes into both content and context. It never stops firing, and it never runs low on ammunition.
Laine’s boyfriend Trevor accompanies her on a trip to Deb’s house after the first unfortunate death. Laine tasks her beau with checking the pool cover out back while she fills a pitcher and waters plants indoors. The cover is loose, but Trevor can’t reach it. Trevor goes prone with an outstretched hand as he mentally wills his arm to lengthen in a desperate grab attempt. He still can’t make it. Will he fall? Will a ghastly hand pull him in for a supernatural drowning? What’s this leading to?
Apparently, it’s only about doing courtesy chores for Deb’s parents, because nothing at all happens. No suspense. No story purpose. The scene arguably foreshadows a third act development, but it is no more crucial than many of the myriad moments where the movie misspends its time.
So unspecific is everyone’s purpose that Laine’s boyfriend disappears for an extended period, leaving her to be accompanied by Deb’s former boyfriend Pete instead. Fifth friend Isabelle has even less of a discernible role in the core gang, other than to offer one more body for dropping.
Laine’s little sister Sarah has a two-scene side story about being a belligerent tart who sneaks behind their father’s back and cavorts with an older man. The sole extent of her flat background is to be the pretense for why Laine keeps an eye on Sarah by bringing her along for the séance. Nothing additional comes of their conflict. No arc of reconciliation. No moment of an “I’m sorry” mea culpa. Sarah ends up as interchangeable as everyone else on the “Ouija” roster.
Certain characters are so stereotypical that “Ouija” lifts not only the type, but also the performer wholesale from another movie. Actress Vivis plays Nona, Laine’s Hispanic housekeeper whose superstitious culture arms her with the arcane knowledge necessary for combating supernatural specters. If Nona looks/sounds familiar, that’s because Vivis also played Martine, the Hispanic housekeeper whose superstitious culture arms her with the arcane knowledge necessary for combating supernatural specters in “Paranormal Activity 2” (review here).
Basic personalities are left undeveloped. Plot points languish without advancement. The only thing that consistently moves forward is the clock. A half-as-long cut of the movie could be screened with the excess excised and viewers would have no different a sense of the story than those who endured the full 90 minutes.
“Ouija” sticks to the book when it comes to pulling off door-banging jump scares, gape-mouthed ghost screams, and typical teen horror manufactured for disposable PG-13 entertainment. The shame is that it never cares to aim higher than this low mark that it hits. “Ouija” is an empty ambition film that is not necessarily what horror fans clamor for, but it is what Hollywood expects audiences will plunk down their money to see. And two consecutive weekends at #1 in North American box office returns proves that Universal, Blumhouse, and Platinum Dunes made the right bet no matter what.
Review Score: 40