Horror is a genre vast with possibilities that very often is victim to a studio system willing to cut corners to make a quick profit off the near-assured success of any horror film given a wide release. That certainly seemed to be the case with Ouija, a film adaptation of the board “game” that was universally panned by critics but still made a profit due to a loyal and quality-starved general viewing audience. (For the record, I have not seen the original Ouija and only know it by its reputation.) And, quite frankly, adapting the Ouija board into a film is an intrinsically silly idea, because doing so is essentially trying to craft a narrative around what can best be described as a party trick. That being said, though, Ouija: Origin Of Evil is actually a pretty good movie. I know, right?
A lot of what makes this film work is the setting and the set-up. In 1967 Los Angeles, mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters, teenage Lina (Annalise Basso) and younger Doris (Lulu Wilson), work as occult specialists helping people reach their loved ones from beyond the grave. In other words, they’re scam artists, though their intent seems less about making money than it is about providing comfort to those who cannot get it elsewhere. With the recent release of the Ouija board, Alice decides this may be a useful tool in her business, but in using the board the family discovers that Doris actually does have the ability to commune with spirits. However, the more Doris uses her new powers, the more she begins to change, exhibiting strange and disturbing behaviors.
There are a lot of familiar possession movie tropes woven into the fabric of Origin Of Evil, but their success comes from their presentation. Writer-director Mike Flanagan is a rising star in modern horror, and even with a commercial film such as this it’s easy to see why. He has a mastery of sound and shadow that is shocking without relying entirely on jump scares to be unsettling. There’s a slow burning tension as the audience is exposed to the horrific changes Doris is undertaking while Alice is blinded by the amazing gift her daughter has presented, even though she is being scammed just as she scams her clients. Most of all, it’s the careful attention to characters and their arcs that sets this film apart. These aren’t just audience surrogates that we want to see survive because we are supposed to identify with them; these are fleshed-out personalities that we want to see survive because we grow to care about them, which is almost always the stronger choice.
Origin Of Evil isn’t without its flaws, though. The third act kicks off with a visit from a priest I’d like to call Father Exposition, who explains exactly what is going on with Doris and thereby removing any sort of mystery that would have lent the film some necessary suspense until the final moments. The third act proceeds to be some very well realized haunted house shenanigans, but Doris herself becomes less and less scary as time goes on, as her face-stretching and wall-climbing antics come across as more silly than they are creepy or terrifying. It’s never so egregious as to break one’s immersion, but it does feel like a bit of a letdown after spending the first two thirds of the film genuinely creeped out by a mysterious force.
But don’t let those criticisms be a deal-breaker. Ouija: Origin Of Evil is a surprisingly solid film, despite how inherently silly its premise seems to be. It’s a tense character piece that only slightly disappoints in the scares department, but overall it’s a spooky good time.