Friday, October 21, 2016

Ouija: Origin of Evil—Back to the Board

Ouija boards must be the most controversial and feared item found in typical toy stores. It makes you wonder why Hasbro still makes them. Maybe it is the hundreds of thousands of units they sell each year with virtual no marketing expenditure, but we’re just guessing here. They even licensed the brand for a horror film as part of their studio development deal. Did the story end with 2014’s Ouija? Who knows, but we can hope. Instead, it is time to flashback to when it all began in Mike Flanagan’s considerably superior prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil (trailer here), a Blumhouse production, which opens today nationwide.

It is 1965, eight years before The Exorcist scared the pants off everyone and made Ouija boards synonymous sulfur-spewing Hell. When Alice Zander decides to incorporate a board into her phony spiritualist act, it doesn’t set off any alarm bells. She is a bit of a scam artist, but she really tries to give her clients the sort of consolation and closure she herself lacks. It has been a year or so since her husband Roger died in an accident, but her teenage daughter Lina and ten-ish-year-old daughter Doris are not even close to being over it. The Ouija board will not help.

It turns out there is an evil entity in the house, which uses the board as a catalyst to possess little Doris. It will take Mother Zander a while to accept the obvious, preferring to think the Ouija board really has brought her into contact with her late husband. However, Lina recognizes the weirdness of Doris’s Regan MacNeil behavior, which will be confirmed by her kindly Catholic school teacher, Father Tom.

Ironically, Origin is far better than the original film, but it is unfairly restricted by the previously established backstory. Flanagan is a considered an up-and-coming genre director who definitely shows some chops here. Most tellingly, the film carries a (mild by genre standards) PG-13 rating, yet Flanagan still earns some legit scares. In fact, the 1960s period look and vibe actually makes it feel more real and grounded. Like Blatty’s The Exorcist, Origin also wears its Catholic perspective on its sleeve. Terms like evil and innocence have very real meaning it this film.

To that end, Henry Thomas (yes, the kid from E.T.) is terrific as Father Tom. The scenes of his initial investigation represent some first class horror movie-making. Yet, the third act inevitably collapses into a blur of bodies flying through the air, just as we expected it would. Not to overstate matters, but there is a tragic poignancy to Elizabeth Reaser’s portrayal of Alice Zander. Lulu Wilson is also Bad Seed creepy as the possessed, mucus-gurgling, eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-her-head Doris. Frankly, Annalise Basso mostly comes off as an obnoxious teen, but that is pretty much what Lina Zander is. Hardcore fans will also get a kick out of knowing Doug Jones is the one beneath the black ghoul’s make-up and special effects.

Production designer Patricio M. Farrell painstakingly recreates the miserable not-so-swinging, polyester sixties and cinematographer Michael Fimognari gives it all an eerie Conjuring­-esque glow. Given the origins of Origin, it certainly exceeds expectations. Despite the baggage straining the third act, it is an expertly-executed exercise in Catholic-influenced demonic horror. Worth a look for horror fans who can appreciate a good set-up and forgive the lame ending, Ouija: Origin of Evil opens in wide release today (10/21), including the AMC Empire in New York.