After eclipsing its $5 million dollar budget twenty-fold, a sequel to the critically-panned Ouija was inevitable. Against all odds though, the soon to be released prequel addresses and rectifies nearly every one of the criticisms levied against the original film. If you skip this film expecting another lazy, uninspired cash-in, you’ll be missing out on one of the most fun horror experiences of the year.
Set in 1967 Los Angeles, Origin of Evil focuses on Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), a widowed mother raising her two daughters, high school sophomore Paulina (Annalise Basso) and nine year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson). She uses her kids to fake seances on weekends to make ends meet, and after Paulina plays with an Ouija Board at her friend’s house, Alice adds one to her arsenal of tricks. Alice’s Ouija Board isn’t just a game, though. Doris connects to what she thinks is the spirit of her dad, and after initially helping them, things take a sinister turn.
The strongest aspect of Origin of Evil is how meticulous it is about achieving the late-60’s look and feel its aiming for. Everything from the aging 50’s cars littering the streets of Los Angeles and the awesome Mod fashion, all the way down to the two-button light switches you only see in your grandparents’ house is spot-on. It’s almost impossible not to fall in love with the look and feel of the film right from the first scene – something I felt the Conjuring spin-off Annabelle and Hulu series “11.22.63” faltered a bit with.
The performances from everyone involved are better than average, but it’s Basso and Wilson who steal the show. The wise-beyond-her-years Paulina is the only one smart enough to catch on to the dark side of her sister’s newfound abilities, and her ability to convey a sense of loss and acceptance is so great that I had to wipe a couple tears away at one part later on in the film.
Wilson effortlessly tackles the balance between disturbing and hilarious as Doris, with her monologue about what it feels like being strangled to death still landing perfectly despite being featured almost in its entirety in early trailers. The look she gives over the back of the sofa whenever a seance is suggested got me to laugh every time it happened, but when her eyes went white and she started crawling on the ceiling, I was biting my thumbnail in terror. This is a rare film where the adult talent is adequate and the kids are the people you want to be on screen the most.
The biggest disappointment in Origin of Evil comes from how closely it’s tied into the original film. As with all prequels, the audience has a pretty basic idea of how the movie ends before they walk into the theater. This problem is made worse thanks to the fact that the entire plot of Origin of Evil is relayed almost verbatim by Lin Shaye’s character in the original film.
Flanagan does such an incredible job of making us care about his characters that the physical and mental states they’re reduced to in the 2014 film don’t really add up. Most viewers probably won’t remember the finer details since Ouija is so largely forgettable, a fact that the filmmakers unnecessarily address in the post-credit sequence. But it’s disappointing nonetheless that there isn’t a big twist here that hasn’t already been revealed. Luckily, Flanagan’s confident directing helps him pull up at the last second of the finale’s nosedive saving it from disaster. Still, it’s tough not to think about how much the film would have benefited had it ditched the Ouija name altogether.
If you skipped Ouija in 2014, I can’t stress enough how important it is that you don’t watch it before seeing Ouija: Origin of Evil. The story told here is great enough to stand on its own, and the elements introduced by the original film only serve to drag it down. I can’t help but think that the people behind Origin of Evil agree, since they curiously left the number two out of the title.
It’s awesome to see other directors besides James Wan putting so much effort into creating characters that we don’t want to see killed off – something that Flanagan struggled with slightly in Oculus and Hush but nails in Origin of Evil, which is easily Flanagan’s best film yet. I’d love to see where he’d take the franchise in a true sequel free of the original’s baggage thanks to it’s relatively tidy ending.
In any case, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a heartfelt and genuinely frightening experience more than worthy of a trip to the movie theater to close out the 2016 Halloween season.