Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Producer: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Jason Blum, Brian Goldner, Stephen Davis
Stars: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Parker Mack, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Eve Gordon, Doug Jones, Sam Anderson
A widow unlocks her house’s hidden secrets when a Ouija board leads her youngest daughter to become possessed.
By forgetting virtually everything about “Ouija” (review here) in the two years since that one-and-done viewing, I made it all the way into the last act of “Ouija: Origin of Evil” before realizing characters and events tie directly into the first film. That’s a good thing. Someone with the original fresher on the mind is likely to recognize certain names straight away and experience the sequel/prequel as a second chapter in a larger arc. Those who didn’t see or didn’t care for “Ouija” on the other hand, will never feel out of any loop. One way “Origin of Evil” is uniquely entertaining is that it fits flawlessly as both a follow-up and a standalone story.
Set in 1967 Los Angeles, “Origin of Evil” tells the tale of fortune teller Alice Zander and her two daughters: teenager Lina and eight-year-old Doris. Alice runs sham psychic medium séances out of her modest suburban home, but has honest intentions of helping clients make peace with personal problems. At least, that’s what she says to wrangle in Doris on the smoke while Lina takes care of the mirrors.
Looking to amp up the illusion, Alice adds a Ouija board to her act, elevating the atmosphere from “for entertainment purposes only” to supernaturally serious. Using the board opens an unseen paranormal portal. That portal goes directly through Doris, who becomes a conduit for several spirits, one of whom claims to be the girls’ dead father Roger. When that spirit leads Doris to a hidden chamber behind a wall in the basement, the little girl inadvertently kickstarts a mystery connected to the house’s secret history. Once Doris’ behavior begins changing as a result, Alice realizes that what she thought was a harmless game might have sinister side effects on her daughter.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a rarity in PG-13 horror in that its accessibility attracts a younger set without having to dumb down scares or story to the point of being unintelligent for an adult audience. The feel of the film plays perfectly into director Mike Flanagan’s strength at setting a tone of under-the-skin terror. Not everyone clicks with the slow burn style seen in his previous films such as “Absentia” (review here) or “Oculus” (review here), but there are more moments of energized eeriness here, particularly in the film’s “throttle you by the throat” climax.
“Origin of Evil” is the most commercial of Flanagan’s films to date. This means a healthy smattering of traditional jump scares is included. But the terrific thing about the jolts is none of them feel cheap. These moments play as organic components of what is already occurring in a scene, woven into the story’s momentum instead of into an artificial gotcha.
The film incorporates a plethora of tropes throughout. Waking suddenly from a dream, a secret room hidden behind a basement wall, a crackling phonograph adding to mood, even an evil Nazi. Yet there is never a sense of misuse when playing with these conventions. Even derivative elements fill contextual functions by only employing a cliché instead of exploiting it.
Watch when Lina recalls a clue unknowingly received earlier. The usual way a movie plays this moment is by cutting to flashback footage or looping echoing audio to remind the audience of something said previously. Here, Lina instead relives the other scene from a new perspective as a phantom figure. It’s only a slight switch on routine staging, though that sort of creativity offers an edge that puts “Origin of Evil” a step above similar supernatural chillers.
When a character says, “splitting up seems like the stupidest thing to do,” you can see the wheels at work of a smart filmmaker who understands the beats needed to massage mass market appeal, yet tweaks expectations so as not to compromise integrity. It’s the same impression that comes from James Wan’s movies, where a skilled filmmaker’s technical abilities work in concert with a reverence for genre entertainment to create something distinctive from facets that feel familiar.
Starting with a throwback Universal Pictures logo, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is an effective period piece not only in setting but also in presentation. CGI enhancements aside, Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari generally limit themselves to 1960s technology. Reel change dots, split diopter shots, lens zooms instead of camera cranes: every technique combines for an immersive retro horror experience that is stylishly scary.
Lulu Wilson delivers a convincingly chilling performance as Doris that is the best by a child actor in a horror film since Noah Wiseman of “The Babadook” (review here). Watch the expression on her face during a séance with Henry Thomas to see her range of natural ability going far beyond simply delivering dialogue on cue. The inherent maturity in Wilson’s presence is an uncanny enhancement to her character’s hypnotic quality of being possessed by a malevolent presence.
Many of these checks in the “Pro” column are the same as those in the “Cons” for fans of different persuasions. Chock full of relentless shocks, the conclusion may actually be overstuffed on intensity, some of which is deflated by predictability. Some may also see Mike Flanagan’s nods to influences including “The Exorcist,” “The Changeling,” even “House by the Cemetery” as leaning too much on a trodden trail instead of as earnest homage. Then there is still the sour sting on the tongue from the disappointment of this film’s predecessor.
That last concern is easier to extinguish. Never mind how you may have felt about the first film. See “Ouija: Origin of Evil” for how it reinvigorates the franchise through dark drama motivating mood and it emerges as a harder-hitting horror film than its predecessor, ranking alongside “The Conjuring” (review here) as a memorably mesmerizing thriller with substance to match its style.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 85