Scares were flat when Stiles White made his directorial debut with 2014 film Ouija, a supernatural horror which got by commercially on its formulaic, same-same structure – and the release date being Halloween – but ultimately faltered in the face of superior genre films released that in the same year.
Nothing about Ouija was particularly memorable – the acting, the plot, the atmosphere – nothing. Needless to say there were groans when a prequel was announced, and though it may have more to do with low expectations, the switch to writer-director Mike Flanagan (who gave us the underrated Occulus) has proved a fruitful one for the maybe-franchise.
The shift from original to prequel is quite dramatic, Flanagan taking his turn in an entirely new direction and focusing on the power of the well-designed period piece, one which represents the kind of do-over you need after a bad first impression. Doing away with the unlikeable and cliche teens, he sets this story in 1967, crafting a less than ideal fate for a widowed mother and her two daughters who are still dealing with the death of their father. A substantial amount of backstory is thrown at us, but rather than fill the run time with shallow emotions and thin atmosphere there’s – somewhat of – a sense of depth here, a clever but rather over the top layer designed to make the audience really empathise with these characters, thereby making what follows all the more effective.
A séance is our introduction to the grieving Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), a second-generation medium who along with her daughters Doris (Lulu Wilson) and Paulina (Annalise Basso) try and channel their seemingly inherited “gift” of communicating with the deceased. It doesn’t work of course, prompting more desperate measures which through a series of convolutions brings the film’s namesake board game into play, a shot at making Alice’s “act” as a medium feel more believable to her customers. Of course, it’s the youngest of the family, Doris, who manages to get through to the “other side” – and this is where the film’s strength comes from. Obviously that spirit talking to the young girl each night pretending to be her father is some trickster demon (Doug Jones) looking very oily and jet black) here to cause trouble.
Patience is practiced well, Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari quite skilled at building a sense of foreboding by keeping the horror bubbling until it’s just the right time to unleash all hell on the audience. This structure has always worked relatively well for supernatural horrors – a very small few – and through a well-written family drama, Ouija “2” tends to skip towards the minority.
Flanagan has quite obviously studied what made James Wan’s now classic horror The Conjuring so successful – both commercially and critically – as a lot of what fills this atmosphere seems borrowed from the box office smash, the detail being found mostly in the visuals and the tone that are consistently on the mark throughout. This world building along with some smart, sharply focused shots from Fimognari take this far beyond what the original ever was, only really tripping when the film attempts to look to the overarching mythology of Ouija. Rather than trying to connect the films, Flanagan would have been better off starting completely anew.
Another similarity to Conjuring: as mentioned above, these characters are endearing – a huge difference from the 2014 original (seriously, fuck those characters) – and when it all comes to a head the empathy that’s been built up through great acting and smart writing festers into something far more terrifying than any possible jump scare; it’s this that separates the good from the bad when it comes to supernatural horror, and Flanagan seems to understand that very well – maybe not quite as well as Wan, but enough to make Ouija’s prequel something far more superior than its boring predecessor.
It’s difficult for a franchise to recover from a failed first outing, the subsequent film always has to go above and beyond to battle the dreaded confirmation bias that works against these follow-ups. It speaks to Ouija’s strength that even if you go in wanting to hate the film, it’s going to be very hard to deny the substantial jump in quality, and why this prequel may fall in some respects (the primary arc hits a wall fairly early on), it hits the nail more often than not. This is what the genre needs more of.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Run time: 99 minutes
Ouija: Origin of Evil is now screening in cinemas across Australia.