For a horror sequel built around a foundation of genre trends, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” contains far more goofy-spooky-fun than one might expect. This prequel to 2014’s “Ouija” takes the retro approach that has made “The Conjuring” franchise so appealing, and layers it on top of the classic little-girl-possessed narrative. The result isn’t so original, but it sports plenty of stylized thrills and chills that might make you think twice about a night with the ouija board.
The film marks co-writer/director Mike Flanagan’s third horror release of the year, after “Hush” and “Before I Wake,” and he leans into the throwback vibe of the 1967 setting, down to the opening title design, in a blazing yellow font reminiscent of the game box. But this movie isn’t about the game itself – it’s simply a device to get us to the real story about a demonic spirit possession.
Any good exorcism movie has a few key elements and “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” delivers in spades. Start with an adorable moppet, one who’s all the more horrifying when she terrorizes her family, spewing devilish incantations and climbing walls. Lulu Wilson has a picture perfect blonde flip as Doris, who soon becomes a bit too close to a ghost named Marcus thanks to the ouija board. Make sure she has a single mom (Elisabeth Reaser as Alice) who is simply too overworked and distracted to notice when her child becomes possessed by a demon. All the better if she’s a widow and a fortune teller and open to the idea of channeling spirits.
Don’t forget a hunky Catholic priest (Henry Thomas as Father Tom) to identify and attempt to thwart the possession. The formula is as old as “The Exorcist,” to which “Ouija” faithfully adheres.
The one additional element here is older sister Lina (Annalise Basso), who is both skeptical of the supernatural events and the person closest to Doris who can truly see what’s going on. When Doris starts describing strangulation deaths, turning up old relics and money from the walls, and scribbling pages in Polish, Lina knows it’s time to summon Father Tom to the house.
The film’s design is spot on, from the heavy, dark, period-specific set dressing, to the costumes of miniskirts and beehives. It’s almost a bit too on-the-nose at times, with a reliance on ’60s slang, ‘ya dig? But Flanagan takes it beyond just retro looks, using a few neat camera tricks to evoke the era, including unique camera movements and split diopter shots, a signature look of Brian DePalma.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is long on atmosphere and myth for its scares. The scares come from Doris and her terrifying behavior, less from action or special effects. The performance by Wilson tends toward the cutesy-creepy and she sells it entirely. Reaser is saddled with a role of the clairvoyant mother who continually overlooks the danger that channeling spirits might bring to this home with an eerie past. There are some unintentionally funny moments, but the film rides the line of humor and horror deftly, the tone allowing for both jumps and tension-relieving laughs.
Realism or internal logic are not to be found in “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” but it’s an entertaining and creepy ghost story that just might scratch that seasonal itch for scares.
Ouija: Origin of Evil
Cast: Elisabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Rated PG-13 (disturbing images, terror and thematic elements)