2016 is a weird year. Even putting politics aside, it’s the year which bestowed Ouija: Origin of Evil, a Hasbro-owned board game movie, produced by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, that’s quite possibly one of the best horror movies you’ll see this year. In fact, upon reflection, it might honestly be my favorite. Wait, you’re telling me there’s a horror movie out right now that might be better than The Witch, Don’t Breathe, The Neon Demon and/or 10 Cloverfield Lane, and it’s based on that board game? Yes, Reader Speaking To Me Directly. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
It has been nearly one whole week since I’ve seen the film, a prequel to 2014’s rightfully forgotten Ouija, and yet it hasn’t escaped my mind. Like a spirit summoned from my fears lingering over my bed, there’s something truly, madly transfixing about this latest effort from Mike Flanagan, the director behind pretty good recent horror movies like Oculus and Hush, to name just a couple.
To be fair, the filmmaker-in-question has a knack for exceeding general expectations. Oculus, for instance, is a WWE-produced haunted mirror flick, not unlike 2008’s dumb Keifer Sutherland vehicle Mirrors, which is a richly creepy, often unsettling family drama under the gaze of a psychological nightmare. Hush, meanwhile, is a bottle flick where a deaf author must fend herself against an unknown stalker killer in the middle of the night. It’s not defied by its depth, yet Flanagan’s astute direction and clever writing, alongside lead actress Kate Siegel, produces a compelling, engrossing and sometimes heartbreaking character piece that just-so-happens to be a home invasion thriller at the same time. Perhaps you have any idea where I’m going.
Yes, Ouija: Origin of Evil largely centers around the century-old board game used to either summon spirits, pass the time between drunk, bored teenagers or an excuse for young couples to touch one another back in the olden days. Does it work? I wouldn’t know. I’m too scared to use it. Plus, I’m told you’re not supposed to play it alone. That’s among the few rules established by the game, either by Hasbro or someone else along the way, yet that’s also what builds this nicely-honed family drama, about a struggling single mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) coming to terms with her husband’s unjust passing and the growing maturity of her two daughter, 15-year-old Lina (Annalise Basso) and nine-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson).
There are spooky demons, demonic children, haunted houses, product licensing and a sexy priest (Henry Thomas) thrown in the mix. For the most part, however, Origin of Evil is a contemplative, emotionally gratifying dysfunctional family drama, laced with heart and insight. It’s more tender, communicative and emotionally earnest than you’d ever expect. The actors are subtle and their characters are well-grounded from the beginning. Even when they’re visited by Satan’s allies, the film never feels dishonest or emotionally bankrupt, and that’s partially what makes it so stunningly vivid. Their foundation is true, and therefore their relationship and the events surrounding it feel appropriately conveyed and often heartfelt in their conviction. Again, I’m talking about a movie that’s inspired by a popular board game and produced by the director of the Transformers movies. Everything about this movie shouldn’t not work, yet it does. It works handsomely, in fact.
Beyond the well-defined characters, Flanagan’s direction has never felt more assured and poised in his developing career. The 1976 production design is exquisite in its detail, and it only gets complimented further by Michael Fimognari’s arresting cinematography. I could also compliment the editing, the lighting, the tense original score by The Newton Brothers, but then I would spending paragraph after paragraph showering praise upon this movie, and I feel like I’ve done that already. I’m not going to call Ouija: Origin of Evil is a perfect movie, because it’s not. The plotting, the more it goes along, does take some silly turns for the worst, and it’s still pretty confusing what it’s trying to say from a commercial standpoint. Like, are you trying to sell a game that could kill my entire family, especially if I play it wrong? Is that the message you’re trying to convey, Hasbro? Message me and let me know.
Beyond its muddled message and its concerning last act reveals, in ways not intended, Ouija: Origin of Evil is an immersive, tense, menacing and, yes, often pretty funny PG-13 creepfest. It’s stylish. It’s engrossing. It’s effective. It certainly makes the original look shit seven ways to Sunday, but its awesomeness is found not merely in its execution. Even its presentation is impressive, with added cigarette burns appearing on the top of the screen, complimented by little shakes on the screen thereafter, to make it look like a ’70s movie theater experience, along with an old-fashioned Universal logo and equally traditional title card. Unlike many nostalgia-obsessed by-products of late, it’s not merely throwback for the sake of throwback. Its attention to time, place and mood provides a stirring look at our changing landscape, and the new era of commercial values trumping homegrown investment. It’s not merely a nod to the past; it’s a celebration of what we meant before, and how even a board game can present a reflection of oneself.
There’s so much more to celebrate in Ouija: Origin of Evil, but it’s best that you go and see it yourself. Based on the box office results, it looks like not too many people are seeking this one out, and that’s understandable. Like I mentioned before, it’s a horror prequel to a film that wasn’t all-that-hot in the first place. Initial trepidation is perfectly understandable, but now you don’t have an excuse. Make a point to check this one out not merely before it exits theaters, but before the end of the Halloween festivities. If nothing else, it’s the best film ever based on a board game and produced by Michael Bay. You can quote me on that one, Hasbro.