The main consensus on Ouija, which was a horror film released in October of 2014, was absolutely PANNED by critics. It currently holds a 7% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and even the positive reviews offer only the faintest of praise. I can’t say I blame them – it was a watered-down PG-13 cash-in/commercial for a creepy Hasbro game with a paper-thin plot. To say I wasn’t excited or even remotely interested in this one is probably the understatement of the year. A prequel to a film I had no interest in seeing even when it was originally released? Let’s break it down.
The film takes place in the 1960s where a mother, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), stages fake seances for her clients with the assistance of her daughters, Doris (Lulu Wilson) and Lina (Annalise Basso). While it appears to be solely for monetary gain, it appears that Alice also does this to help give her clients some closure and feel more at ease about their long-lost loved ones. Alice has also previously lost her husband and it affects the children in a major way, which becomes so apparent when a spirit who appears to be that husband is talking through young Doris and communicating through a Ouija board that they had recently added to their routine. The school begins to notice Doris’ strange behaviour that gets increasingly worse as they begin to wonder if it’s truly the spirit that they think it is or if some other benevolent force is closing in on the family.
The writing in this film is very solid and it’s the first thing that I was completely surprised by when watching it unfold, especially with something like this that just seems like a cash-in prequel attempt in the same vein of Annabelle when The Conjuring ended up being such a huge hit. The backstory of the father coupled with the family staging fake seances and “talking to the dead” creates for some interesting tension later in the film as we begin to notice similarities. Alice buying into the fact that her daughter is able to communicate with her long-lost husband with only a shred of specific information calls back to the fact that she may just be falling for the very same tricks she plays on her unsuspecting customers. I will not reveal what is really going on but for moderately astute filmgoers, it will be pretty obvious that something nefarious is afoot almost immediately after the Ouija board starts to come into play (that’s not a criticism, by the way).
Another aspect where the film shines is the acting. While there are no marquee performers in this, they all do a fairly solid job and are much better than they need to be in a typical horror movie like this. Annalise Basso is the younger version of Lin Shaye’s character from the original Ouija film and acquits herself quite well. Sometimes there are scenes where she almost has to become a screaming banshee or go into severe crying fits and she does so with aplomb. Lulu Wilson (who I believe is making her debut here) is one of the creepier children in recent horror memory. She is quietly effective with her simple stares and delivery. There is one scene in particular where she explains to another character about the stages someone goes through when they get strangled to death. It is one of the most disturbing scenes in the entire film and I actually felt uncomfortable just watching it. Elizabeth Reaser rounds out the cast as the loving, supportive mother. She probably gets the least material out of the three but I enjoyed her relentlessness and her need to hang on tightly to the idea that her husband may still be trying to reach her. You really sensed her desperation in her actions and dialogue. Another person worth mentioning is Henry Thomas, who plays Father Tom, if only because he was Elliott in E.T.! Aside from that, he is also decent in his rather small but pivotal supporting role.
Most good horror films will always excel at this section of the filmmaking process and this movie was no exception. One thing that they did especially well is have things happening in the background subtly but enough for viewers to notice if they pay close attention. Some of this stuff actually provided the biggest scares for me and there were some audible gasps that I heard throughout the theatre as well. The actual “boo scares” themselves were well-done too; I’ve never seen such great timing on when to deliver the actual scary moment. I would think it was over and then BAM! Some scenes even play with your expectations by cutting to a different scene and not even having the expected moment of sheer horror. Another aspect of the film’s technical prowess that I enjoyed a great deal (and actually wanted more of) was the way in which the film celebrated the time period that it takes place.
For instance, the settings and the clothes are very reminiscent of the time period of the 60s (it would be awkward if they were modern, right?) and I love the idea of the children going to a school run by the church because it futher amps up the creepy undertones of the horror in this film. Not only that but the movie opens with a really cool title sequence and even the title itself appears on-screen in a manner that you would be more likely to see in a film that was MADE during the 60s (or 70s). Maybe this is the film nerd in me but one thing I kept noticing are the “cigarette burns” popping up in the corner of the screen every time there would need to be a reel change, which was a thing that projectionists had to do before everything went digital, of course. Director Mike Flanagan even dusts off the old Universal logo. The only thing I have to criticize here is that I wanted a bit more of the older technical wizardry and it would’ve been even cooler if we got more practical effects. That having been said, the special effects were pretty damn good anyway and it amounted to much more than just “bad CGI.”
Colour me surprised; this was a very entertaining, scary and interesting horror film with lots of quality writing, solid performances and some fun stuff involving the time period. It’s a great movie where I was expecting passable at best.
FINAL RATING: ****
* (Brutal; the worst rating)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)