Festival circuit or not, 2016 has been a strong year for the horror genre. With titles such as The Witch and Don't Breathe, it's nice to see more than one genre film a year that's worth talking about. After the dreadful first Ouija feature based off the original board game, audiences didn't have high hopes for the prequel. However, a new director and writing duo allowed the film to go in its own direction. Those who didn't get the chills and thrills that they yearned for from the original will get plenty in the prequel, along with a well-balanced use of intentional humor. Prequels are rarely this good.
Set in 1967 Los Angeles, Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is a widowed mother of two daughters. She's struggling to pay the bills through her seance scam business, where she's trying to increase the showmanship of the act. After purchasing a Ouija board, the family unwittingly invites an evil spirit into the house. When the supernatural entity sets its sights on the youngest daughter, Doris (Lulu Wilson), they must fight to save her soul.
The first half of the film establishes its 1960s atmosphere and a sense of humor that fits quite nicely. In the opening scene, Alice and her two daughters put on their best showmanship to convince vulnerable customers of contact with the spiritual world, which doesn't go as planned. Even though some of the bad decision making is what one would expect from the typical horror flick, we come to genuinely care for this family. The screenplay paints an honest picture of them that makes them feel a bit more personable. Each character handles their grief in different ways, allowing the roles to possess more substance. Despite the fact that writer/director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard are forced to write within the confines of what its predecessor established, they have crafted something that surpasses only delivering on scares.
Since the family runs their own supernatural scam business, they already don't believe in the spirit world. This makes it a bit easier to understand their disrespect for the rules of the Ouija board. It isn't long after they play with the board that strange occurrences begin to happen. Doris is suddenly talking to a new "friend" and cash mysteriously appears in the walls of the house to help them escape foreclosure. These seemingly harmless acts turn into more sinister ones, as it soon becomes clear that the entity has claimed Doris. There are a lot of jump scares in this movie, and I mean a LOT. Fortunately, there aren't any cheap fake-outs. Even though they're all quite telegraphed, Flanagan ensures that they remain entirely effective. Ouija: Origin of Evil rarely gives away the demon, as its creep factor is focused on Doris. Children can be insanely creepy, and this prequel once again reminds us of that.
The third act has a presence that displays its self-awareness. While it isn't overbearing, it certainly makes references to other supernatural horror films. There will be obvious connections made to The Omen, The Exorcist, and even the more recent The Conjuring. However, it still manages to have its own voice that isn't tampered by its references. The final act can become a bit repetitive, especially as characters continue to stick around this scary kid without much hesitation. Even so, it still manage to be a fun and scary time at the movies. Surprisingly, the film doesn't focus on the Ouija board quite as much as the original did, which allows the feature to explore some worthwhile places.
The real standout here is Lulu Wilson, who plays Doris. She delivers this eerie role with an incredible amount of conviction. From her body language to dialogue delivery, she terrifies consistently. Flanagan utilizes this performance as a massive asset to the film, as he places a clear spotlight on her. He has been known for his use of jump scares over his past few films, and that continues to be held true here. One of the most impressive uses includes a panning camera whenever characters look through the planchette for any spirits that may appear. While practically every jump scare can be seen coming, the execution is far better than your typical Hollywood studio horror picture. If you don't catch yourself jumping a single time, then perhaps you're a bit too desensitized to it all.
There's no denying that this horror prequel is a massive improvement over the original. Flanagan has a clear understanding of the genre and its mechanics. However, he was smart to put more than the scares into the spotlight. This is one of those genre features to actually get the audience to genuinely care for its lead characters. Even though we know that the spirit is malevolent, we still hope that they have finally reached the end of their troubles. The screenplay also manages to mend a good sense of humor into the film in a way that doesn't thwart the picture's overall tone. Ouija: Origin of Evil more than makes up for the disastrous original. Recommended.