Ah! ‘Tis the most wonderful time of the year, as numerous people have already quipped on Twitter. Here in New York, the leaves are (gradually) changing and the nights are (very slowly) getting colder. It’s definitely Pumpkin Spice season at Trader Joe’s, even more so at Starbucks, and so that means that it’s time for some good (and some not-so-good) scary movies. This year my intention is to watch some new (to me) horror films, filling in the gaps of my horror vocab and perhaps adding a few new favorites. First up is a film that I unfortunately missed in theaters: Mike Flanagan’s throwback horror Ouija: Origin of Evil.
As its title suggests, this is actually a prequel, though I went into it not having seen the original 2014 Ouija. And this one stands on its own pretty well, although my later researches indicate that there’s quite a bit that might have been spoiled here if I’d seen the original. Ouija: Origin of Evil opens in 1967 Los Angeles, in the home of the Zanders, where mother Alice (Elizabeth Rasser), teenage daughter Paulina (Annalise Basso), and child Doris (Lulu Wilson) make a difficult living performing séances for people seeking to connect to spirits of the dearly departed. They’re charlatans, of course, but well-meaning ones – Alice says that they’re not really lying, just giving closure and hope to people who need it. Lina and Doris’s father died several years before, and Alice is beginning to have difficulty making ends meet. Doris is bullied at school, Lina is tired of feeling unmoored, and Alice has a minor crush on the school principal Father Tom Hogan (Henry Thomas). Enter the cursed board game, to first save the day and then make life really terrible. After playing Ouija with her friends one evening, Lina suggests that her mother incorporate it into their séance routine. Alice takes it to heart and buys the game, but soon Doris becomes obsessed with it, claiming that she can actually talk to people, including her father, on the other side.
Ouija: Origin of Evil hits some delicious scares, especially during the first two acts. This is a jump-scare film, trading on things glimpsed just out of the corner of the eye, figures lurking in doorways, and sheets slowly sliding off beds, with long pauses right before something slams into the back of your head. As the film progresses, the haunting ramps up, with Doris eventually going full Damien as her interaction with the other side becomes more pronounced. Lulu Wilson, by the way, acquits herself admirably in the evil child role. There’s one memorable scene between her and Lina’s boyfriend Michael (Parker Mack) that is as wonderfully creepy as anything in The Omen. The entire film pays generous homage to haunted house films of the 1970s – The Amityville Horror, The Changeling, and Burnt Offerings come immediately to mind – but without depending on referentiality. This feels like a 70s horror film, down to the use of soundtrack and the un-ironic 70s styles.
The denouement is where the film falters, showing far too much of its hand all at once with a rather complex and repulsive revelation that includes, um, Nazis. I never find this kind of horror particularly scary – just nauseating. Yes, there’s rusted medical devices, a creepy backstory, and ghosts a-plenty, but somehow the ending just doesn’t land. The final scenes set up for the sequel – or the original – but they feel a bit perfunctory. The film is working too hard to clearly link to the original and would have been better served to be something that stood steadily on its own.
But Ouija: Origin of Evil is still one of the most solid mainstream entries into the genre that I’ve recently seen. While indie horror is on the rise, it’s good to see that mainstream horror films – polished and focus grouped – can still bring the scares. Watch it for the first two acts, if nothing else.