Not many people were clamoring for a sequel to 2014’s Ouija, a largely forgettable PG-13 horror film that catered to the lowest common denominator of horror “fans” – mostly teenagers who were looking for a night out to laugh at something kind of spooky and kind of hokey. So it was a surprise when Ouija: Origin of Evil was announced, a prequel of sorts that proposed to explain how Doris got to be the evil entity she became in Ouija. While Ouija: Origin of Evil didn’t sound overly thrilling, the presence of Mike Flanagan – who quickly lit up as a director to watch after both Oculus and Hush made some waves – lent some promise to the film. And, sure enough, Ouija: Origin of Evil surpasses its predecessor by far, and even manages to get a few surprising scares in as well.
Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is a struggling mother attempting to provide for her two daughters after the loss of her husband, and her occupation involves creating fake seances for grieving families and giving them the kind words they’d want to hear. Both older daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) and the younger Doris (Lulu Wilson) take part in the seances, helping to add realism to the events whenever possible. Everything goes smoothly until Alice brings a Ouija board into the house as a new prop, hoping to magnetize the board but instead inviting the house’s spirits into Doris’ body.
Part of Ouija: Origin of Evil‘s charm lies in its setting, effectively recreating life in 1965 and giving the film a personality that Ouija severely lacked. Flanagan’s depiction of this quaint, often reserved time period is spot-on, and everything from the clothing to the music manages to evoke a satisfying feeling. More than that, though, is Flanagan’s close focus on the Zander family life, taking time to craft real characters struggling from the loss of an important person.
The film spends a lot of time on Doris’ obsession with attempting to reach her father; what could have devolved into cheesy melodrama becomes an important bridge to Ouija: Origin of Evil‘s supernatural tale, though, and the script’s slow movement – co-written by both Flanagan and Jeff Howard – carefully molds the characters into likable humans rather than pawns in a ghost story. Basso’s portrayal of Lina is exceptionally adept, who eventually begins a plea to Alice to get help for Doris as she rapidly transforms into a different person.
Ouija: Origin of Evil shares a lot of the same scenes as the original, often retreading the similar ground in different ways. But Flanagan is able to make these moments more palpable, more tense, than what Ouija could muster up; part of it is the stronger thematic elements, part of it is Wilson’s excellent portrayal of Doris in a way that shows her strength as a young actress able to swap between cute and chilling in the matter of a moment. Doris’ facial contortions and J-horror style movements add effective scares to Ouija: Origin of Evil while never venturing far from the common PG-13 style of horror filmmaking; it’s probably not going to disturb most horror fans, but the suspense is enough to make up for it because the audience wants to root for these characters
Surprisingly, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a lot better than expected, a combination of what Ouija did right while taking cues from Insidious, The Conjuring, and learning from the mistakes of Flanagan’s Oculus. This is an effective, if well-trod, ghost story, but it’s the setting and tone of Flanagan’s direction that makes this stand out from the rest. It’s a real testament to the film that Ouija: Origin of Evil will be remembered as one prequel that manages to heavily overshadow the original; skip Ouija and go right to this one.