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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Ouija: Origin of Evil  (2016)
2½ Stars
Directed by Mike Flanagan.
Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Doug Jones, Kate Siegel, Alexis G. Zall, Lincoln Melcher, Sam Anderson, Ele Keats, Eve Gordon, Michael Weaver, Chelsea Gonzalez, Lin Shaye.
2016 – 99 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, October 19, 2016.
2014's "Ouija" was something of an anomaly: a majorly profitable hit of the Halloween season (it earned $103 million worldwide off a $5-million budget) that few actually seemed to like. Slick yet wimpy, the film—inspired by the Hasbro board game—seemed to be primarily targeting sheltered 13-year-olds girls at sleepover parties. Simply put, anyone who has seen more than a couple horror movies would likely be unfazed by what "Ouija" has to offer. In mounting (and, quality-wise, overhauling) the brand, writer-director Mike Flanagan (2016's excellent "Hush") and co-writer Jeff Howard have been given free reign by producer Jason Blum and the good folks at Blumhouse Productions to do as they please. In just about every conceivable way, classily orchestrated prequel "Ouija: Original of Evil" is a marked improvement over its predecessor, ratcheting up a number of expert chills even as the narrative rounds plenty of familiar bases.

1967, Los Angeles. Recently widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is struggling to move on while running a fortune-telling business out of her house. In actuality, her abilities as a medium are bogus, she and her daughters—15-year-old Paulina (Annalise Basso) and 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson)—rigging seances while providing their clients much-needed closure with deceased loved ones. When Alice decides to introduce a Ouija board into her oeuvre, Doris instantly takes to the mystifying oracle. What initially appears to be a conduit to communicating with their late father and husband takes a more sinister turn as a malevolent entity threatens to possess the young girl.

If "Ouija" was tame teenybopper fare with predictable jump scares and middling development, "Ouija: Origin of Evil" is a noticeably more mature, character-focused horror picture that doesn't need to rely on a clothesline of musical stingers. Director Mike Flanagan is a confident filmmaker with a savvy eye for crafting bold and moody visual compositions. Building a sumptuous sense of unease while never losing sight of his protagonists' reality and struggles, he ensures his story remains riveting in spite of its conventions. Indeed, there have been so many similar supernatural films of this ilk in recent memory, from 2011's "Insidious" and its sequels, to 2012's "Sinister" and its sequel, to 2013's "The Conjuring" and its sequel, to 2014's "Annabelle," to 2016's "Lights Out," a slight whiff of the commonplace has begun to permeate each new entry, no matter how well they are done. "Ouija: Origin of Evil" is no exception, and the places it ultimately goes are rarely surprising as it must adhere to retelling a backstory already unspooled during the earlier entry. With that said, Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari (2015's "The Lazarus Effects") milk the inevitable with imposing images, hair-raising situations, and sympathetic performances.

Elizabeth Reaser (2016's "Hello, My Name Is Doris") gets one of her best major big-screen roles as mother Alice, struggling to financially stay afloat and provide for her kids via dishonest means. When her children's lives are threatened by forces beyond her control, she is forced to question the mistakes she's made and whether or not her selfish desire to make contact with her husband was worth it. Through it all, Reaser commits wholly to the part, her performance matched step for step by Annalise Basso (2014's "Oculus"), affectingly standing in as the voice of the audience as Paulina, and Lulu Wilson (2014's "Deliver Us from Evil"), alternately precocious and then seriously eerie as Doris. As Father Tom Hogan, the concerned principal of the kids' Catholic school, Henry Thomas (2010's "Dear John") is a welcome addition but decidedly underserved in a supporting role.

The swaying shadow of a body hanging from a noose. The distorted singing on a slowly dying record player. The tap-tap-tapping of something no longer living on the other side of a planchette lens. Doris' calmly chilling soliloquy on what it feels like to be strangled to death. These are just a few of the memorable moments and indelibly spooky visions found in "Ouija: Origin of Evil." Also of note: it looks and feels like something made in the late-'60s/early-'70s; the Universal studio logo and vintage opening titles are only the beginning of this throwback aura of convincing costumes, production design and period soundtrack cues. As the film makes its way toward a climax that works in the moment but doesn't quite reach the heights of what has come before it, the place it finally lands is at once a foregone conclusion and satisfying in its series logic. The talking board from which "Ouija: Origin of Evil" derives its name is more smartly used than in "Ouija," but, then, so is the realization of the script as a whole. Mike Flanagan is aware a film of this sort adds up to very little without strong characters to guide the way through his witchy bag of tricks. For a franchise that nearly died before reaching a second installment, the director's adept intuition and firm control of mise en scène has single-handedly given it a new spectral lease on life.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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