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Review: ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ delivers fun, but unoriginal scares

Expectations are a tricky phenomenon to handle. People will tell you that the best way to read a book, listen to an album or watch a movie is to do so without any prior knowledge or forecast. Unfortunately, that’s nearly impossible to pull off, which is why the very thought of a sequel to 2014’s critically-panned Ouija is enough to incite groans. Horror sequels have a long history of mediocrity, and the return of explosion-maestro Michael Bay to the producing role isn’t enough to inspire much confidence.

It is a surprise, then, that Ouija: Origin of Evil isn’t terrible. Wielding a distinct visual palette and an acute ability to manipulate dramatic moments, director and co-writer Michael Flanagan has crafted a solidly entertaining and creepy horror film that exists free from the flaws of its predecessor. It does little new, but it accomplishes its earthly goals with style.

The film generates part of its success from a change in setting. The plot, which takes place in 1967 Los Angeles, follows Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), a widow working out of her home as a fortune teller (and glorified scam artist) with her two daughters, teenager Paulina (Annalise Basso) and eight-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson).

When Alice brings home a Ouija board to use as part of her next seance, Doris unwittingly makes contact with the “spirit world” and invites a presence into their home. The Zanders initially use Doris’ connection to the undead to improve their business. But as the otherworldly visitors become violent and begin to possess members of the family, the Zanders must enlist the help of a local priest (Henry Thomas) to protect themselves.

None of this is original; films that focus around the possession of young children live in the shadow of The Exorcist and have struggled for years to accomplish anything new with the concept. Luckily, Flanagan makes the most of his setting, working with director of photography Michael Fimognari to give the film a deliberately hazy look. The Zanders’ surroundings look and feel like the late ’60s and the filmmakers’ efforts to make it all appear authentic pay big dividends.

The opening 40-or-so minutes are well crafted and generate genuine suspense without relying on jump scares. Flanagan proves himself to be a talented visual choreographer. Origin of Evil features several sequences built around long, winding takes that are impressive from a purely aesthetic perspective. There are also a fair amount of laughs sprinkled into the film’s exposition, and the family members’ relationships to one another feel sincere.

As the plot progresses, Origin of Evil cannot escape the trappings of the genre and begins to rely on cliched, overwrought scare tactics. The rate of jump scares in the film’s final act is absurd; they appear with such frequency that the effect is one of sudden detachment. Flanagan gets needlessly lazy here, and every single scene begins to follow the same pattern (lower the volume, peek around a corner, see something scary).

It becomes impossible to remain absorbed in the proceedings when the techniques on display have been used in every horror movie ever.

The story is also frustrating in its insistence that every single mystery must be explained to its audience. There is a larger narrative at work, but by the end, very little is left to the imagination. It’s disheartening to see a film reveal so much in a genre that inherently relies on the unknown.

Thankfully, the final product succeeds in enough areas to be considered a quality distraction. Origin of Evil may amount to simple pastiche, but at least it’s reliable in its mission to creep people out.

Watch the trailer for Ouija: Origin of Evil here:

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]