Friday, January 23, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Ouija (2014)

The horror movie Ouija (2014) earned a slew of negative reviews when it was released last fall, even though it was a sizable hit at the box office, earning over ninety million dollars against a five million dollar budget.

The reasons for the critical negativity are, by-and-large, valid. The film’s characters are thinly-defined, there are some gaping holes in logic and plausibility in the narrative, and the story adheres to too many horror clichés.

Worse -- at least in terms of my personal viewing -- I have been absolutely spoiled by the good independent horror films of late (The Babadook [2014], Honeymoon [2014] to name two).  This means that my patience for Ouija’s flaws is probably at a low-ebb.

But I’ll be blunt about this: Ouija is not nearly as bad as many reviewers claims it is, and the film could perhaps even be termed enjoyable…if only one decides to view it from a particular perspective, or to consider it from a certain context.

Specifically, this horror film is a complete and total call-back to the genre as it looked in the late 1970s and 1980s, if not in terms of visualizations or color palette, then certainly in terms of its characters and situations. 

Individual shots in Ouija recall moments from Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and other films from that time period. The numerous clichés -- though they are clichés -- are the very ones that you can find in a dozen or more movies from this very time period.

So yes, the film is problematic and flawed. No sense beating around the bush.

Yet if one attempts to watch it as one might have watched a horror film in 1984, Ouija is not the total wreck or time waster some critics claim. Instead, it’s a new addition in the long-standing “teenagers-fight-the-supernatural” sub-genre.  Roger Ebert would have called it a “Dead Teenager” movie.

Viewing Oujia from this perspective helps to alleviate some critical concerns about the movie, and actually makes it a bit more tolerable.  It appears that so many critics chose to complain about another movie being based on a board game (like 2012’s Battleship), that they actually missed the contextual clues that this is a truly an old-fashioned-style horror movie with shout-outs to some famous titles in the canon.

You won’t love Ouija. It’s not a great horror film.  But you may experience a pleasant sense of déjà vu from watching it.

“I don’t want to be in this house. It feels wrong.”

Teenager Laine (Olivia Cooke) is shocked and confused when her best friend Debbie (Shelley Hennig) kills herself after reporting that she has been playing with a Ouija board.

Seeking answers, Laine, Debbie’s boyfriend, Peter (Douglas Smith), Izzie (Bianca A. Santos), Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), and Laine’s sister, Sarah (Ana Coto) attempt to contact Debbie’s spirit using her spirit board.

Although they are mindful of Ouija’s rules -- don’t play it alone, always say goodbye when you are finished, and never play it in a graveyard -- something goes wrong, and the teens contact a dangerous spirit with the initials “DZ….”

“You played in a graveyard and now she’s awake again…”

Like many horror films (and particularly slasher and rubber reality films…) of the seventies and eighties, Ouija is all about a small clique or group of teenagers who unexpectedly countenance the supernatural, and watch their numbers dwindle, all while reckoning with the idea that they could be next…that they are mortal.

In this world, parents are absent figures, and downright useless. They can’t help fight the terror that is threatening their children, and claiming their lives. We see this paradigm in Halloween, wherein Laurie’s parents, the Strodes, are missing-in-action.  Or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), where parental authority figures are unable to effectively combat Freddy, or even believe in his presence. 

In Ouija, the clique of Laine, Peter, Sarah, Izzie and Trevor “transgresses,” or breaks the rules of the board game, and is haunted by a spectral force.  We meet Lane’s father, but he promptly leaves town, even after Debbie’s recent death…  And following her death, Debbie’s parents turn care of the house over to Laine, a teenager, and then are never seen or heard from again.

Now, on one hand, this development is absolutely a gap in believability.

Would you leave the care and tending of your very expensive house to a group of teenagers who have just experienced a terrible loss? 

Not only that, but would you leave them with the keys to the house, and not even give them a return date? 

I can argue that this is a gap in believability and plotting. But amusingly, it is exactly the kind of gap in believability we expect to experience in slasher and rubber reality films. In these films, high school is the center of the universe, and the dramatis personae are all kids.  It’s a teenager’s world.  So it was then, and so it is now, in Ouija.  There’s even a scene here featuring a useless high school guidance counselor.

In specific terms, Ouija actually recreates visually (though not shot for shot) some moments from the films I mention.  There’s a scene here in which Laine slowly walks home from school with a friend, and we see the wide sidewalk and a large green hedge nearby.  Again, the shots aren’t the same, but in purpose, context and placement the moment is a reiteration of the scene in Halloween wherein Laurie walks home with Annie.

Similarly, major plot-points are discussed at the exterior entrance to high school in Ouija, just as they are in the opening scenes of a Nightmare on Elm Street, as the clique gathers and gets ready to attend class.

Also like the Elm Street films, the teenagers each die in their own individual hallucination (one involves a dental flossing that becomes a lip-sewing trauma…), and the secret of stopping the spectral avenger involves a furnace in the central house’s basement, where a secret has been left  untended. You’ll recall that Freddy’s glove and hat were stored in the Thompson house basement in A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Debbie’s house also hides such deadly secrets in Ouija.

Ouija’s idea of creativity, however, is to substitute the supernatural dynamic of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the one from The Ring (2002).  In particular, there’s the spirit here of a young girl, who is apparently trapped in the house. And then we get the “shocking” (actually predictable…) moment wherein characters realize that this spirit should never be freed because she is the source of true evil.

It’s not a fair trade, really. Freddy, at least at first, was pretty scary. Samara was too, I guess, but there’s something over-familiar about the supernatural details of Ouija. The film very badly needs an effective boogeyman to elevate its story of teens against the universe into something fresh or new-seeming…and it doesn’t get it.

Ouija’s overarching message, more or less, is stated by the ethnic grandmother/character (another cliché) who warns Laine “don’t go seeking answers from the dead.” 

The point is that Laine and the others live in a world where parental authority and knowledge is absent, and they choose a dangerous oracle/medium, the Ouija board, in the absence of that presence. 

Again, this is not at all far from the dynamic of Craven’s 1984 masterpiece, wherein Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) must dig for the truth, and must overcome the inertia and corruption of the parental figures in her life.  This idea is handled with brilliance in Elm Street.  It is handled in far more basic terms in Ouija, but the resonances are there.

Sadly, only a few moments in the film are genuinely chilling. Perhaps the most effective such “scare” scene sees Trevor walk his bike through a dark tunnel, only to stop half-way through because he spots a shopping carriage, and something scrawled in chalk on one of the concrete walls.  This well-orchestrated moment captures our universal fear of the dark, the fear of being trapped somewhere with no easy escape, and more. 

The rest of the terrors presented in the film are rigidly formulaic.

In 2007, I wrote Horror Films of the 1980s and watched many slasher and rubber-reality films.  Some were inspired, some were good, and most were just run-of-the-mill, repeating the same core tenets laid down in the best films of these types (Carpenter’s; Craven’s). Ouija is no better and no worse than a lot of those films, so it seems silly to pillory it as one of the year’s worst efforts.

Instead, it might be more apt to point out that the film attempts to resurrect the teenager-against-the-universe trope that was a staple of 1980s genre storytelling, one overturned, finally, for the professional setting of the 1990s horror “interloper” films.

It’s easy to gaze at Ouija as a basic, uninspired modern horror film.  But in some way, those who grew up with films of this type might enjoy the familiarity and comfort it provides. We already know every beat, every challenge, every twist in the narrative.  We know where it’s all headed (right down to the predictable sting-in-the-tail/tale.)

But it’s been a long time since we saw all these familiar touches played out again, especially without any interference from post-modern or meta touches. Ouija’s sole and most significant virtue may be not that it revives 1980s “dead teenager” tropes, but that it does so with an absolute straight-face and total belief in the material.

So Ouija is either a bit dumb and a little flat, or a call-back to a time when a lot of dumb, flat horror movies found an audience by aping the best of the form (Halloween and Elm Street) and showcasing a teenagers-against-the-world dynamic.

I’ll be a glass-is-half-full guy, and go with the latter choice.

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