OCTOBER 21, 2016
It really annoys me when someone like Chris Pratt or one of his MCU buddies visits a children's hospital (in costume of course) and people start tweeting about how they're only doing it for publicity. Even if that's remotely true, do they honestly think it matters to the kids who have had their not-very-fun lives brightened by their visit? And is it worth risking planting that idea in their head? All they know is, Star-Lord just showed up to talk to them and lift their spirits, and that's all that counts. It's something I was reminded of during Ouija: Origin of Evil, as our protagonists are TECHNICALLY con artists, pretending to talk to spirits on the behalf of their still-living loved ones, but the people are put at ease by what they're making up - so is it wrong?
I don't think so. I mean, sure, it might be a bit sketchy to come up with this idea to put food on the table, but we see mom (Elizabeth Reaser) refuse money from a customer who was spooked by their session (due to one of her daughters going off-script a bit), while still comforting him with assurance that his late wife is no longer in pain. This occurs only a few minutes into the movie, and tells us what we need to know: this isn't a woman who is out to defraud or exploit anyone - she genuinely wants to provide some ease of mind to the people that come to see her. It's not long after that that we learn why she has such sympathy - her husband was killed in a car accident, and knows all too well how frustrating it can be to not get to say goodbye to someone, to say the things you wanted to say, etc. That she's also raising their two daughters alone now also keeps us from thinking less of her, the way we might think about Michael J. Fox's character in The Frighteners or whatever.
"OK, what does this have to do with a scary Ouija board?" you might ask - when she buys one as a prop for her fortune telling sessions, one of the daughters takes a liking to it, and sure enough before long they are being menaced by some real deal ghosts, and also actually conversing with the spirits that people pay them to talk to. But are the ghosts all harmless? Of course not, this is a Blumhouse horror movie, not to mention a sequel (well, prequel) to one that inexplicably became one of their biggest hits despite being one of their most creatively bankrupt offerings. The younger daughter starts doing and saying strange things, a priest (Henry Thomas!) gets involved, things get hairier, their home's secret past is revealed... all that stuff kind of goes through the motions we've come to expect from our modern supernatural horror movies. But the stronger-than-expected character work, and a focus on people who are genuinely good folks who got dealt a crap hand and are trying to work through it (the dad's death seems to be fairly recent, maybe like six months? If they specify, I missed it) give it an easy leg up on the likes of The Darkness or The Quiet Ones.
It's also a giant improvement on the original Ouija, though that can't be much of a surprise to anyone, given the low bar it had to clear - they would have had to turn to a hack like Declan O'Brien to manage to churn out something worse. Instead, they went with Mike Flanagan, who has yet to make a disappointing film (this is probably his "weakest" and it's still good), which inspired confidence right from the start, though the early strong reviews didn't hurt, either. Flanagan's role as writer/director (and editor, for good measure) is the reason I would see a prequel (something I very rarely like) to a movie I very nearly hated first thing on opening day, and I was happy to see he didn't let me down. I can only assume the Platinum Dunes folks weren't too hands on with this one, since it focuses on adults having real conversations instead of teens. Indeed, my heart sank a bit when the older daughter snuck out to a party, introducing a circle of friends that could very well have been our main focus when the scary stuff started happening. But of the three we only see one of them again, a love interest for her who is only in a few more scenes, one of which he's being (quite humorously) dressed down by Reaser's character. I'm sure teens will still be the primary audience for the film, and it offers enough of what they probably came for, but unlike the interminable original, adults should find a lot to enjoy here too.
Besides the character stuff, what works best about the movie is how Flanagan approached the idea of making a prequel. Rather than reverse engineer it from the original film, he went about making it as if it was a film that existed all along, and that the Ouija we snoozed our way through in 2014 was the 30-years later sequel. By that I mean not only do you not have to see the first film to get the most out of this one - it actually works BETTER if you haven't seen it at all (or at least don't remember it), just as a normal movie/sequel relationship would work. Indeed, I forgot most of the original, and thus it wasn't until over an hour into this one that I realized the connection to the first film's characters, but only in a general sense, not in a way that would have me knowing exactly who would definitely survive the ordeal (it'd be like watching Phantom Menace knowing *someone* in the movie later became Darth Vader, just not precisely *who*). If you were planning a refresher (or if you haven't seen the first and figured you'd check its Wiki or something), I would highly encourage you not to do that - Flanagan smartly did not rely on your familiarity for a single thing in his film.
And his approach wasn't limited to his screenplay - he actually put effort into making a film that mostly looked like it could have been made nearly fifty years ago (it's set in 1967). He uses an old-school Universal logo (and neither Blumhouse or Platinum Dune's logos play along with it - seeing a half dozen of these fucking ego trips is a modern trend) and the title comes up with its copyright info along the bottom the way old films used to. And, for the film geeks in the crowd, he even added cigarette burns every 15-20 minutes to signify a reel change (complete with a slight hiccup on the cuts between), because on film is how everyone would have seen the film back in the '60s. And like those older films, it's more concerned with building up atmosphere and character than scaring us every few minutes. I'm not trying to spoil anything by saying so, but most of the spooky bits you saw in the trailer come in the film's final third - it's definitely more a slow-burn than a jump-scare fest, which is actually something it shares with the original. It's amazing what a difference well-rounded characters can make!
I just wish it had more of them. There are basically only five full characters in the movie, and if you remember the original you know the fates of the majority of them. Flanagan's always stuck with stripped down casts (his previous film, Hush, literally only had five people in it), but here I think he could have benefited from opening it up a bit, or at least followed up with characters who only appeared one or two times. We've all seen the bit in the film where the possessed little girl causes a bully to slingshot himself, but what you can't tell from there is that's the last time we see anyone else from the school, and nothing really comes of it. Another trailer reveal involved the girl writing in Polish, and when it gets translated we only hear about the woman who does it, rather than actually see her. It's not that the film feels truncated or anything, just that in his quest to keep the focus on the family, Flanagan sometimes let things feel slightly undercooked. Like the slingshot bit is great for the trailer and all, but with no real payoff in the film (and no other instances of her using that particular ability, to the best of my memory) it could have been cut quite easily.
But look. I can't think of a movie with more red flags - we're talking about a PG-13 Platinum Dunes prequel to a crappy movie based on a board game, which might as well be the standard example for the phrase "recipe for disaster". That it's even watchable is something of a shock; that it's actually a pretty good movie and worth seeing inches on genuine miracle. All the credit goes to Flanagan and his crew, of course, but I think we should give Blumhouse (and the Dunes, maybe?) props for allowing him to do something far more interesting than they probably had in mind (i.e. do the same thing that made them a lot of money last time). It's almost a shame that it's tied to a movie that no one seemed to actually like (despite making the money it did, I've never spoken to a single person who enjoyed it - and I know fans of the Nightmare on Elm St remake), because it'll probably hurt its chances at the box office and as a fan of Flanagan's I'd love to see him get a big win since he's always getting screwed by distribution. But that's just how it goes these days, and regardless of how much money it makes, the fact that Flanagan made a real movie within "the machine" of IPs and franchises and not one but two production companies that are too often content to fall back on their proven formulas is something to be lauded.
What say you?
P.S. If you ARE one of those elusive fans of the original, make sure you stick through all the credits for a little gag that's kind of obvious but will make you smile anyway. If you're not a fan, or haven't seen it - don't bother staying, it won't mean anything and might even confuse you into thinking you're seeing a scene from a different Blumhouse franchise.