Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Board To Tears

For our Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.

Year: 2016
Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Sequels are tricky things, especially horror sequels. Recapturing the magic that tingled spines across the nation is a Sisyphean task, and explains the well-meaning but egregious failures of flicks like Exorcist II: The Heretic or Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Ouija: Origin of Evil didn’t have to worry about that, because the original Ouija wasn’t very good at all. But that puts it in a strange position. Should it carry over the elements of the original and be a true sequel, or just scrap everything but the name and start again? The title indicates that they went with the latter, with its scrupulous avoidance of the number 2.

Throw in director Mike Flanagan, who has made a habit of producing solid but not-quite-there 7/10 films, and you have a recipe for a move that could either be an unequivocal nightmare or the Empire Strikes Back of the horror genre. As it turns out, it’s neither. It runs straight down the middle, but what else would you hire Mike Flanagan for?

You’ve done it again, you rascal.

In Ouija: Origin of Evil (which hews oddly closely to the mystery uncovered in the original film, though you don’t need to have seen it to understand the plot), it’s the 1960’s and the Zander family runs a fortune telling business out of their house, as mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) fakes contact with the spirit world with the help of her daughters; rebellious teen Lina (Annalise Basso) and 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson).

When Alice decides to add a Ouija board prop to her show, Doris attempts to use it to contact her dead father, accidentally opening a channel to the spirit world. As an evil presence slowly begins to possess her, Alice at first thinks she’s made contact with her late husband, but Lina has her doubts. She enlists her Catholic school principal Father Tom (Henry Thomas) to help her uncover the mystery.

And he seems weirdly OK with the occult, because Blumhouse movies STILL can’t tell the difference between ghosts and demons.

Well, Mike Flanagan has done it again. And by that I mean he has made 2/3 of a good movie. For the vast majority of its run time, Origin of Evil is an admittedly cliché but engaging paranormal horror film until which point it decides to pound a 4Loco and run in circles screaming for 20 minutes, just like Flanagan’s 2013 effort Oculus. The man doesn’t know where to stop, and while that’s not always a drawback in the horror genre, it can also lead to some excruciatingly silly moments.

Origin of Evil reaches that point and hurtles right past it with an indefinitely extended denouement that disgorges layer upon layer of nonsense like an out-of-control frozen yogurt machine. I suppose, as a prequel, there was a limit to how much new material they could add to the plot, leading to this inarticulate fright gag navel gazing. But there’s no denying that the film actively undoes a lot of the good it develops in the first hour.

Luckily, there’s a lot of good in there, even if it’s not particularly innovative. The slow boil of the thrills provides for a good long stretch of subtle gags that use character and tangible practical effects that really nail their mood before they apply the CGI lacquer required by all modern haunting movies. And the reason they can use characters for scares is because they actually have them!

Who knew humans were important in horror movies?

Origin of Evil makes the most of its leads, allowing each and every one of them to develop naturally and explore their own regrets about the past and reaction to the paranormal findings of the present. Even Henry Thomas’ priest is given an unreal amount of attention, giving us a compelling insight into his complex personal motivations before shoving him into an obligatory Exorcist shot and tossing all emotional resonance to the wolves of its bonkers finale. It helps that Flanagan has assembled a solid cast that works hard to earn Ouija’s more dramatic beats, especially Oculus alum Annalise Basso, who has certainly become a young actress to watch out for.

The most fresh, fun element for which I would recommend Ouija: Origin of Evil is its sense of humor, which provides solid, necessary comic relief without undermining either the scares or the reality of the story. Probably the best purveyor of this particular angle is Lina’s friend Betty, played by Alexis G. Zall (boy does this film make great use of its young actors, across the board) who only appears in one scene but steals the film so well she should join the next Ocean’s 11 movie.

While none of these good elements can’t be found elsewhere, there’s no denying that they work. Ouija: Origin of Evil throttles the bland teen horror of Ouija and twists it into an emotional family nightmare cum funhouse thrill ride. That’s a resounding success in my book, even if there’s perhaps no real reason to seek it out for anything other than an in-theaters Halloween sugar rush.

TL;DR: Ouija: Origin of Evil is a decently rewarding, if cliché paranormal picture.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 882
Reviews In This Series
Ouija (White, 2014)
Ouija: Origin of Evil (Flanagan, 2016)

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