Ouija: Origin of Evil (Universal Pictures, PG-13

It’s just a fine Halloween movie…well, maybe if you twiddle your thumbs for the first 30 minutes.

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Horror movies are tricky to make. They are set along one track: to scare you. But at the same time, they have to stand out—the most common way being in establishing original settings, conceits, and characters. Unfortunately, a lot of these horror movies make the mistake of wasting their precious running time on exposition and attempts at character development without weaving in enough horror. Another fatal mistake is thinking character development involves people fighting at all times, instead of showing them on their own, in their element, making decisions that speak to who they are.

The Conjuring 2 sometimes makes these mistakes, taking a little too long to really get going, teasing a few scares while trying to build drama elsewhere, until it finally delivers on what it’s meant to deliver. That make-or-break moment (did your movie actually scare me?) was made. And surprisingly, despite the overwhelmingly negative reception of the first Ouija film, the sequel does end up making it. It just takes a lot longer than I would have liked to get there, and yes, that long and boring hump is there to try and set up the characters. The attempt isn’t quite successful, but the scares that finally make their appearance are.

Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) runs a fake fortune telling and séance business with the help of her two daughters, Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). The evil ouija board makes its way into their home, and the dark spirits are channeled into the young Doris, who claims to be able to speak to their deceased father. Soon, the sinister and violent entity and many tortured souls from the house’s dark past use Doris as a conduit, making her the victim of the most frightful possession.

The setup is wholly unoriginal, basically a repeat of The Conjuring 2, which itself was reusing old horror tropes. But again, with distinctive imagery, that overused conceit doesn’t bother me too much. What does stick in my craw is the overuse of tired horror-movie moments. Can we please stop with the sheets being pulled off of sleeping people and also wasting our time with unsuccessful attempts at world-building? Great, rich atmospheres and character dynamics in the classics like Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining work because not only were the directors masters of their craft, but the behaviors of those characters and the mood of the world they inhabit are injected with a feeling of dread early on. Most movies forget to do that, expecting that just being in the horror genre will have us on edge. Not so, movie.

Director Mike Flanagan (who brings Annalise Basso back from Oculus) is a pretty savvy director. His films Hush and Absentia were both well regarded and became hits on online streaming services. He has the skill for scares, and the distorted faces made by Annalise during her possession and the unsettling use of mirrors and disorienting effects truly gave me the heebie-jeebies. Sure, with the expected “bed sheets” moment and plentiful jump scares, I got pulled out several times. But those restrained moments where Flanagan holds on things to truly disturb us—letting the camera linger past the moment of comfort—are exceptional. Even when the action ramps up to farcical levels, it’s directed with a swiftness and excitement that allows us to overlook the improbability of it all, weaving in spine-tingling images that recall The Ring and goofy-horror action sequences that evoke Sam Raimi.

With horror movies like this, if they aren’t too bland and actually succeed in creeping me out, I’ll give it a nod. That isn’t to say it holds even a tiny little birthday candle to horror in its peak performance. It’s just a fine Halloween movie…well, maybe if you twiddle your thumbs for the first 30 minutes. | Nic Champion

 

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