Ouija: Origin of Evil – Review (***)

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What I learned from Ouija: Origin of Evil; do not dismiss a movie just because a) it’s a sequel to a one of the worst theatrically-released films of the last decade b) the title sounds like a mediocre Doom expansion pack I bought about a decade ago.

A prequel to 2014’s critically reviled box office hit in ways so tangential it’s basically a standalone movie, Origin of Evil follows fortune teller Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) in the late 1960s as she uses an array of elaborate parlour tricks to help bereaved people come to terms with their loved ones passing on. However, once her teenage daughter encourages her to incorporate a Ouija board into the performance, she finds her 8-year-old daughter coming into contact with a malevolent, terrorising paranormal entity.

You have to hand it to Universal here; they saw the $100+ million box office gross of the original movie and still opted to actually hire a talented, even visionary filmmaker for the sequel in Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush), while giving him almost double the budget of the first rodeo. They clearly could’ve just sprung for a near-remake of the original with no-name actors, a script-by-committee and a cheap hack-for-hire director and easily walked out swimming in money, but in daring to dream bigger, they may well have created a franchise with conceivable longevity here.

Now, be clear; Ouija 2 is still a fairly predictable, down-the-line horror movie for the most part. The obnoxious jump scares can be tracked to a metronome and there are countless variations on scenes you’ve seen in dozens of other films. The difference, then, is in the execution. For one, Flanagan’s slick camera movements combine with his character-driven instincts to create an unexpectedly thoughtful rendition of a familiar haunting scenario, and in act three, he even dares to subvert the formula he otherwise clings to pretty faithfully in that prior hour.

Then there’s the performances; Reaser is an exceptional character actor and this marks a rare starring turn for her, even if she’s undeniably outdone by Lulu Wilson, who plays Alice’s youngest daughter Doris. It’s an extremely challenging role for a child actor, having to fleet between vulnerable and sublimely creepy while also tinged with some sure silliness; it’s a tonal balancing act and her success in the role is also a testament to how well Flanagan works with actors.

While Origin of Evil is wholly too silly to really be scary at all – the effects-driven eye-rolls and gaping-mouth scenes are both repetitive and tawdry looking – it is an entertaining effort by virtue of its strong eyes and ears for atmosphere, and the impressive performances across the (Ouija) board (sorry).

If nothing else, it’s quite probably the most improved sequel in cinema history, and while it may not leave viewers chomping at the bit for Ouija 3, it at least suggests the possibility that it won’t make you want to eat your own head.

***

Ouija: Origin of Evil is in cinemas now

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