When producers of a relatively small genre-based Hollywood studio go on a talent search for an up-and-coming director to helm their latest horror franchise entry, they either go for a TV or commercial director eager to make his first feature regardless of the film's tonal content, or a genre purist who's been cranking out quality work for smaller scale productions, ready to dip their toes into a bigger pool. As far as the entry's quality is concerned, the second option is usually far better than the first one. For proof, look no further than an easy comparison between 2014's toy-based horror flick (Can't believe that's a thing now) Ouija and the recent prequel, Quija: Origin of Evil.
The first film was directed by someone who was experienced in the industry, but without much accolades in the horror genre. The result was a paint-by-numbers and stale cash grab without a single original touch. The prequel, which tells the horrific story of the Zander family who lived in the house from the original film in 1967, was directed by Mike Flanagan, a tried-and-true horror fan and filmmaker who's so prolific and dedicated to the genre, that he helmed three quality horror releases in 2016 alone. Flanagan is obviously a big admirer of 60s horror, as he infuses this prequel with a look that makes us feel as if we're watching a movie made during the period.
From the use of the era's Universal logo (Flanagan must have been thrilled to be able to start his film with the company's name, since it dominated American horror during the first half of the 20th Century), to a faded, sepia-mixed-with-pastel look that pays homage to 60s horror without aping it, Flanagan has fun with the creative possibilities of the project and invites us in for the ride. Hell, he even puts cigarette burns in a film shot and edited digitally in order to give it the feeling that reel changes occur every twenty minutes.
As fun as all that stuff is for genre purists and cinephiles, it's just the cherry on top. The whole thing would still crumble if the overall tone, aesthetics, and the performances didn't match Flanagan's ambitions. Thankfully, he delivers a wholly satisfying piece of PG-13 horror that deftly mixes the modern sensibilities of the genre with tried and true stylistic approaches of the 60s. You'll notice that I didn't mention story or screenplay as part of the film's elements that need to work as well as Flannagan's assured directorial approach. The story is pretty much your basic possession tale: A member of an innocent and sweet family (Usually the smallest child) is haunted by a socially awkward demon in the house (They tend to be skittish and scatter like cockroaches when seen, as if they know they're in a horror flick that requires mucho jump scares), and the family goes through hell to save her.
With minor tweaks, Quija: Origin of Evil could have easily fit into countless other similar franchises, like The Conjuring or Insidious. The fact that Flanagan uses the Quija board as a conduit into the spirit world during the first act and pretty much forgets about it during the rest of the film is a clever way to avoid such a gimmicky and lame premise as much as possible. The child who's terrorized by evil spirits this time around is a girl named Doris (Lulu Wilson), who thinks she's communicating with her dead father through the Quija board but, well, read the first part of the sentence again. The family in the story runs a spiritual sťance scam, where they use rigged candles and tables to pretend to be talking to the dead. The matriarch, played with commendable dedication by Elizabeth Reaser, believes that they're doing good by giving their clients closure, even though it's all fake.
There's a bit of a "swallowing your own medicine" theme running through the story, as the family believes that Doris is using the same tactics on them when it comes to her claims of being in touch with her father's spirit, but the focus here is of course on the genre set pieces where tension is stretched to its limits, only to explode with a ghost jumping down your throat (In this case, literally). Even though Flanagan uses some obvious fake-jump-scares, the proverbial cat in the trash can, perhaps due to studio insistence; he usually has the goods to deliver when the crap really hits the fan.
As I mentioned above, Quija: Origin of Evil has a washed out 60s look, and the 1080p transfer captures that beautifully. I would have admired some more grain, and perhaps artificial scratches here and there, but that might have pushed it into Grindhouse-style gimmicky territory.
Flanagan uses a lot of restraint when it comes to delivering the audio goods. The DTS-HD 5.1 mix is usually quiet and center-heavy, until the spirits begin to reveal themselves. At which point, you can expect lots of booming surround presence, creating a nice overall balance between tension and over-the-top payoff.
Commentary by Mike Flanagan: This loose and conversational, yet very informative, commentary shows once again how dedicated Flanagan is to the genre. He talks about how PG-13 horror films get a bad rep, how he achieved the look and feel of the film, and the modern state of the overall genre.
Deleted Scenes: These scenes clock in at almost 17 minutes, and have more material with Doug Jones' evil Nazi surgeon character.
The Making of Quija: Origin of Evil: A 9-minute featurette that tries to cram in all aspects of the production.
Home is Where the Horror is: A five-minute piece about the house in the film.
The Girl Behind Doris: A cute little featurette where we get to know more about the little actress behind the part.
Especially for a seemingly rushed prequel to a minor horror hit that wasn't very good to begin with, Quija: Origin of Evil is a genuine surprise thanks to the genre passion showcased by its director. It doesn't rewrite any rules of the possession or haunted house sub-genres, but is a frighteningly good time nevertheless.