Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Films of 2016: Ouija: Origin of Evil

Another week, another utterly mundane modern Hollywood horror film to review.

Ouija: The Origin of Evil (2016) is the second production in the Ouija franchise, a series of movies based on the popular Hasbro game. Although it is difficult to imagine how this is possible, this prequel proves less intriguing and less satisfying than its mediocre predecessor was.

The original Ouija played out, at the very least, like a teenage slasher movie of the 1980s, and thus had nostalgia going for it.

The new film is but another derivative, supernatural movie with a cute-as-a-button child contacting a malevolent spirit who, at first, is believed to be friendly. It’s straight from the (overcrowded) school of Insidious (2011), The Conjuring 2 (2016), and The Darkness (2016) and thus qualifies as instantly forgettable, despite the 1960s setting.

The film’s narrative is not only overly familiar, but lacking in coherence too. It is not clear, at film’s end, for example, why things have occurred as they did. Ouija: Origin of Evil is so poorly structured (and perhaps poorly edited), in fact, that it can’t even keep track of the three simple rules behind the Ouija game.  

Specifically, after the rules are presented (via an on-screen cut-in, or insert shot), every major character proceeds to break one of those rules, scene after scene. This rule-breaking is so egregious and repetitive that the three rules lose meaning. Thus when one character offers a would-be meaningful revelation about one such rule in the third act (“we were playing in a graveyard!”) the exclamation has literally no power, except to bewilder. You’ll want to shout at the characters, “but you also played the game alone,” and frequently didn’t “say goodbye” when you stopped playing!

So how do you know which rule the evil spirit is mad about you violating?

The film’s supernatural effects are also frequently executed in poor fashion, eliciting confusion and giggles rather than scares, and the film’s final “jump scare” is probably the worst moment in the whole movie.

There are some dedicated efforts here to make Ouija: Origin of Evil look a bit like a 1970s horror movie. The seventies era Universal Studios logo is utilized, for instance, before the film starts.  And an Exorcist (1973)-style spider-walk is utilized often, though to poor impact. But other than these small, ultimately inconsequential touches, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a film lacking a meaningful creative voice, and featuring a botched special effects finale, and a story that, finally, makes no sense.

The movie is a massive disappointment.

“Just because you can’t hear him doesn’t mean that he isn’t there.”

In Los Angeles, in 1967, a lonely widower, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), makes a living by working as a (fraudulent) medium, selling people “supernatural” mourning experiences with the dead that make them feel at peace. 

Meanwhile, she raises two daughters: rebellious teenager Lina (Annalise Basso), and young Doris (Lulu Wilson). Doris is having troubles fitting in at her Catholic primary school, run by administrator Father Tom Hogan (Henry Thomas). Lina is discovering boys.

After a late night party, Lina suggests that her mother should incorporate a new “trick” into her medium act -- a Hasbro game called Ouija, consisting of a spirit board. Alice agrees to do so, but it is Doris who becomes proficient, apparently, in contacting the spirits of the dead. 

In fact, Doris feels that she has been in contact with the spirit of her dead father, who left them the house they live in.

In truth, Doris is in communication with a dark, malevolent spirit, and is becoming more alienated from reality – and her family -- on a daily basis…

“We can actually do what we’ve been pretending to do.”

Early on in Ouija: Origin of Evil, the camera favors the audience with a shot of a placard or card; one that establishes clearly the rules of the titular board game. These are: 1. Never play alone. 2. Never play in a graveyard. 3. Always say goodbye.

The card is favored visually, in a cut-in or insert giving the image the weight, essentially, of a close-up angle.

Very quickly, however, all the Ouija rules are violated. Alice plays alone. And when she finishes, she doesn’t say goodbye.

Lina plays alone, and doesn’t say goodbye.

Doris plays alone, and doesn’t say goodbye. Literally each of the female protagonists violates two of the three stated rules at some point in the picture.  Then, as I noted in the introduction to this review, it is stated breathlessly, near the film’s climax, that all this has happened, and the spirit has been given power, because the family “played in a graveyard.”  The line has zero impact because the other two rules were violated (in conjunction) no less than six times.

To offer a comparison for purposes of illustration, imagine you are watching Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984). We are told the three rules of caring for Mogwai: No bright light; don’t let them get wet; and don’t feed them after midnight. However, now imagine that Billy, his Dad and his Mom then proceed to take Gizmo out in sunlight and get him wet too, but nothing happens. Then they feed him after midnight, and something does happen.

You’d have a right to complain about consistency of the discourse. Why tell us the rules if you just intend to break them, and then ignore the fact that you broke them?  That’s precisely what Ouija: Origin of Evil does. It sets up the rules, breaks the rules without comment, and then tries to make a big deal over the fact that one particular rule (playing in a graveyard) was violated. 

I’ll be honest, I even have problems with the way that final rule is utilized. A graveyard is defined as a “burial ground, especially one beside a church.”  The house in Ouija: Origin of Evil is definitely not near a church, and it isn’t a burial ground, either. A crazy doctor disposed of a few bodies there, while conducting mad experiments.  I think it’s an exaggeration and misnomer to call that a graveyard. It isn’t a burial ground (an area of ground set aside for the burying of human bodies) in any accepted sense or definition.

So even here, the movie is playing fast and loose. I would argue that “playing in a graveyard” is actually the one rule that Alice, Lina and Doris don’t break during the movie’s running time.

Even if we set aside the movie’s utterly incoherent attention and understanding of the three important rules of Ouija, the plot is confusing. A mad doctor conducted experiments in the house in World War II from a secret laboratory that nobody knows about? And then kept the bodies in the walls too? Why? Who was this doctor, and why was he conducting these sadistic experiments in the 1940s?  This seems like an over-complicated sub-plot -- and an incredibly far-fetched one too -- that the movie only half-explains.

All this reminds me, once more, of just how much influence Poltergeist (1982) has had on the modern cinema.  That Tobe Hooper film gave us playful spirits who turn out not to be so playful. It gave us the secret underneath a house (in that case, a family was literally living, if not playing, in a graveyard). And Poltergeist II gave us the idea of kindly spirit in the family defending us in the hereafter from the bad guys.  All these ideas recur in the current factory-assembled horror movies of Hollywood, and in Ouija: Origin of Evil, specifically.

The special effects are the next stumbling block. There’s a scene here in which an evil spirit hangs Lina’s boyfriend, killing him. We never see (until sometime after the murder scene) what the boy is actually hanging from. We see the swinging body and the rope, but not what holds up the rope. It might be nice to know what the rope is tied to, when this moment occurs, or -- you know -- actually have it in frame.  And then later, the rope miraculously transforms into a bungee cord before our very eyes, as it stretches elastically to let the corpse grab someone. It’s a groan-worthy effect in a scene that doesn’t work.

The special effects at film’s end -- of a final, awkward, lurching, demonic Doris -- are also disappointing.  The effect looks so bad it takes you right out of the movie. As this is the end of the film, there’s no opportunity to re-engage. The viewer is forcibly ripped from the movie’s sense of reality. The ending feels like a half-baked after-thought too, not like a moment that grows organically from the characters or their situation.

Good horror movies have over overcome bad effects before, however, and it’s fair to note that the central performances in the film are quite good. Elizabeth Reaser is excellent, actually. But the film’s story is rote and familiar, and the execution of the score elicits boredom, not excitement or thrills.

At this juncture, I could recommend at least three far superior horror films from the same director -- Mike Flanagan -- that you should watch instead of this one: Absentia (2011), Oculus (2012) or Hush (2016).

Take your pick from that list, but watching Ouija: Origin of Evil is like playing in an (artistic) graveyard. 

Worse, all the bodies in this graveyard are familiar ones; the picked-over corpses of titles such as The Conjuring, or Insidious.

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