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Dustin Putman

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Ouija  (2014)
1 Stars
Directed by Stiles White.
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Douglas Smith, Bianca Santos, Shelley Hennig, Sierra Heuermann, Sunny May Allison, Lin Shaye, Claudia Katz, Vivis, Robyn Lively, Matthew Settle, Afra Tully, Claire Beale, Izzie Galanti.
2014 – 89 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for disturbing violent content and thematic material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 22, 2014.
An occult parlor game patented by businessman Elijah Bond in 1890, the Ouija board—further popularized in 1966 when the rights were sold to Parker Brothers—has spooked and intrigued multiple generations of curiosity seekers hoping to contact the other side. Spanning well over a century, the spirit board's history is a fascinating one dipped in superstition and folklore. A really cool film could have been developed around the storied past and legends of the "mystifying oracle," but "Ouija" isn't that movie by a long shot. This is neutered, corners-cutting, made-by-committee filmmaking, dumbed down for its target demographic of 14-year-olds and disparagingly compromised by a PG-13 rating.

When Debbie (Shelley Hennig) is found dead in her home, the victim of an apparent suicide, high school senior Laine (Olivia Cooke) is left baffled by why her best friend would take her own life. While housesitting for Debbie's grieving parents, Laine stumbles upon a Ouija board in her bedroom. In an attempt to contact Debbie's spirit, she gathers together her circle of pals—boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), sister Sarah (Ana Coto), waitress Isabelle (Bianca Santos), and Debbie's boyfriend, Pete (Douglas Smith)—for a séance. Who or what they contact, however, is not their friend, and once it latches onto them, it won't let go. As the people around her start dropping like flies, Laine sets out to investigate the former residents of the house in hopes of identifying and putting a stop to the vengeful spirit.

In "Ouija," debuting director Stiles White and longtime co-writer Juliet Snowden (2012's "The Possession") aren't concerned with using the witchboard as anything other than a plot device for a lame knockoff of 2000's "Final Destination," 1998's Japanese-made "Ringu" and 2002's superb U.S. remake "The Ring." From the prologue where a teenage girl is stalked in her home by an unseen supernatural entity, to the desperate race against time to stop a curse as the protagonists' terrible fates edge closer, to a twisty story that blatantly and predictably borrows wholesale from those aforementioned pics, the film adheres so closely to the blueprint of "The Ring" that there isn't a surprise to be had. What there are instead are repetitive scenes where characters creep around in the dark and are startled when their friends suddenly appear from behind doors and around corners. The suspected result of frame-by-frame negotiations with the MPAA over earning a PG-13 rating, several crucial scenes (one involving a swimming pool, for example) are either cut frustratingly short or happen entirely off screen. Not only does this do a disservice to the admittedly one-note characters, but it cheapens the story's would-be suspense and insults audiences by shirking away from the very things for which they attend these kinds of movies.

Olivia Cooke (2014's "The Quiet Ones") is an appealing actress, particularly good on A&E's "Bates Motel," but hopefully her threadbare lead role here as Laine will prove to be but a hasty stepping stone to better films that are more worth her while. Half of her co-stars look too old to be teenagers—Daren Kagasoff (TV's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"), Shelley Hennig (TV's "Teen Wolf"), Douglas Smith (2014's "Stage Fright") and Bianca Santos (TV's "The Fosters") are in their mid-to-late-twenties—and while they are all proficient with what they have to work with, their parts aren't given the room to naturally breathe and develop as anything more than freshly scrubbed cogs in the wheel. They talk about being upset over the loss of their friends, but rarely show it. The possibility of making any sort of statement at all about adolescent disaffection in an increasingly impersonal technology-run world is clearly above this project's singular goal of drawing teenybopper crowds into multiplexes for the week leading up to Halloween.

"Ouija" contains a few halfway ominous moments, but is too slick and watered-down to hold a palpable threat. Once over and the lights are up, the movie still has not delivered anything for viewers to take with them or linger under their skin. One will likely be left with questions, though. Why does Laine and Sarah's single dad conveniently leave for a business trip the moment after Debbie's funeral is over? Why does Laine not bother notifying the authorities when she discovers the corpse of a child who has been missing for fifty years? Just when a jolt of inspiration is most needed, along comes the gloriously welcome Lin Shaye (2013's "Insidious: Chapter 2") as Paulina Zander, a mysterious woman whom Laine seeks help from at the local psychiatric hospital. Shaye holds the screen so fully in her two scenes and creates such an unnervingly original character that it casts an even brighter light on the rest of the picture's deficiencies. Wading into cheese, corn and sap by the grand finale, "Ouija" is a spineless chiller in desperate need of a sturdier, more confident brand of chills. Hopefully a better film will one day be made about the mysticism of the Ouija board. In the meantime, there's always 1986's far superior "Witchboard."
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman