Ouija: Origin of Evil **½|****

Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson and Henry Thomas in Ouija: Origin of Evil
Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson and Henry Thomas in Ouija: Origin of Evil

This prequel to 2014’s critically reviled but financially prosperous Ouija shares the titular board game as the focal point of its premise but is markedly different in a few key areas that make it more promising from the outset. Instead of being set in present day, the action of Ouija: Origin of Evil takes place in the hazy, autumnal glow of 1967, a time that in retrospect feels much less cynical and inherently more superstitious than today. Rather than being subjected to a group of mindless teenagers who make one stupid decision after another, the story here centers around a mother and her two daughters who are capable and intelligent in ways that make them easy to root for and care about.

The mother Alice, played by Elizabeth Reaser, raises the daughters by herself after her husband’s life is cut short by a drunk driver and she’s able to make ends meet by hosting bogus séances in her home with the help of her oldest Lina (Annalise Basso) and her youngest Doris (Lulu Wilson). Eager to introduce a new prop into their routine, Alice picks up a Ouija board at the local store but disobeys the instruction to never conduct a reading while unaccompanied by others. Unbeknownst to her, the spirits that she’s conjured begin to work through Doris and possess her in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has seen any supernatural horror movie of the past 50 years.

With his previous efforts Oculus and this year’s Netflix release Hush, director Mike Flanagan is a solid match for this kind of material and while he gets off to a great start with convincing characters and an enticing setting, the genre clichés inevitably begin to pile up and stifle the bits of originality that exist elsewhere. It’s as if Universal knew that since this was the only horror movie to be released around Halloween this year, it had to cover as much ground as it possibly could to appeal to the widest audience. Flanagan picks from the best bits of genre titans like House on Haunted Hill, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist with varying degrees of success.

These odes to the past are also accentuated by flairs of nostalgic showmanship that permeate the film, whether it’s the throwback title card complete with the “MMXVI” copyright at the opening or the faux-changeover cues that blip intermittently in the corners. In fact, the lighting and the set design inside the house is so striking in its authenticity that these somewhat gimmicky touches may not have even been necessary in the first place. The inclusion of computer-generated effects into the mix also dampens some of the charm of the simple practical effects like the Ouija planchette springing to life on its own.

The performances are uniformly believable and most importantly, the actors don’t succumb to the campy elements that crop up later in the narrative. Best of the performers is the youngest actress Lulu Wilson, who brings the perfect level of creepiness to her possessed character and gives the film its most chilling moment with her monologue describing the sensation of being strangled to an increasingly distressed house guest. Ouija: Origin of Evil is perfectly serviceable for those looking for a grab bag of well-staged jolts but might be disappointing to hardcore horror fans seeking a future classic for their Halloween rotation.