Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite improving upon the original, “”Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a disappointment given that Mike Flanagan, the director and co-writer, knows how to construct and execute effective horror and thriller pictures (“Absentia,” “Hush,” “Oculus”) without relying on standard third act tropes that plague inferior works far too often. The film commands an intriguing exposition and rising action, but all the effort and energy lead up to a finale so unnecessarily flashy that one could not be blamed for considering that perhaps it is simply following the lead of James Wan’s “The Conjuring” rather than striving to become an example.
Genuine scares are present and a few are effective. So many movies involving characters playing a Ouija board come across as silly, slow, even detached at times because of the editing; they often take the time to show the fingers on the planchette moving from one letter to another as if we couldn’t understand how the game worked the first time. Here, the difference is noticeable. Cuts are generously employed—not only is the pacing faster, the message is quickly spelled out, and so when shocks are delivered, we tend to get caught off-guard because we are still absorbing or reeling in from the given messages, weighing what they could mean. Editing controls the timing; timing delivers the type of scare.
It takes the time to get the audience to relate to the family living in the haunted house. Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is a single mother who must raise her daughters (Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson) on her own after her husband’s death. Bills are piling up, and Alice’s parlor tricks of telling fortunes and contacting the other side are not enough to make a living on. It is very likely that they could lose the house. It is important that we understand their financial situation since they choose to stay in the house despite the discovery of active spirits within.
Humor is involved from time to time. For instance, there is an amusing scene where the mother reads the palm of a boy who is romantically interested in her elder daughter. Moments such as this not only function as a reprieve from the escalating tension but also a way to highlight the humanity of the characters. We must believe that those on screen being terrorized are actual people who might respond the way we do given a set of circumstances and so we relate with them all the more.
Less interesting are instances in which visual effects are employed—a possessed person walking on the ceiling, cloudy eyes, bodily contortions. Since the images are obviously made using or with an aide of a computer, we are taken out of the reality that the filmmakers worked so hard to establish. This approach is too commonly used during the final act to the point where the images are no longer scary, just gratuitous and unnecessary, an exercise of what they can do to wring out cheap jump scares.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” works when it presents creepy details like a little girl being able to write in Polish even though she has no command of the language whatsoever. Even the history of a person who used to live in that house is fascinating. After all, at some point we’ve all wondered about the former people, once living, who used to reside in our homes. (Well, I have.) I wished Flanagan had picked his brain some more and had come up with a more inspired approach to end this story in a way that matches the identity of the kind of horror film he set out to make.
★★ / ★★★★
Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is deemed fit by his psychiatrist to be released from a mental hospital so his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), comes to pick him up. Over lunch, Kaylie tells Tim that she has found it—the antique mirror that ruined their family eleven years ago—and the time has come for them to fulfill their promise.
Director Mike Flanagan has shaped one of the most effective and creative horror independent pictures in the past five years with “Absentia,” about two sisters and a tunnel with terrible secrets. In a way, “Oculus” follows a similar skeletal framework in that it is about a brother-sister pair and a mysterious, possibly sinister, object. The siblings in both films are separated by time and space. The latter, however, pales in comparison because its premise never moves beyond its structural conceit.
While it is always daring that a horror film is injected with dramatic elements through a parallel storytelling, the present and the past melting through one another like milky memories, much of the tension is sacrificed. A predictable pattern is created. An example is a would-be scary scene involves Kaylie seeing a supernatural figure and the camera quickly cutting to this entity in order to get a reaction from the audience. When the camera returns to the protagonist, we now see her younger self (Annalise Basso) which means we are transported to the past. There is screaming and hullabaloo around the house. About two minutes later, we are transported to the present. This gets exhausting after a while.
The mistake is placing more emphasis on the past. Obviously, the two children, although traumatized, made it through their terrible ordeal. Early in the picture we are told that their parents (Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane) are dead. Thus, it becomes a matter of simply waiting to see when the parents will die. We are even informed how they will die. With the exception of the strange mirror, there is very little mystery left. Why is the focus not on the present? More importantly, since the mirror is also a character, with the exception of Kaylie going over its owners’ track records throughout four centuries, why are we not provided more information about it?
Although the picture draws some inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” in terms of imagery, the father’s personal work space and how he sits in front of the computer all day, what Flanagan should have taken away from Kubrick’s work is how to establish an increasing sense of impending doom. The 1980 classic, also telling a supernatural story, consists of consistently high-risk and very calculated rising action. This one, however, barely gets off the ground. Because it gets stuck—or is willing to get stuck—in trickeries involving perspectives and memory, the dangers and repercussions rarely come off as tangible. I found it gimmicky and off-putting.
The supernatural figures look uninspired. Are ghosts with lights emanating from their eyes supposed to be scary? It certainly did not work for me. Instead, I thought about how similar images worked better in movies like Anton Leader’s “Children of the Damned” and John Carpenter’s “Village of the Damned.”
It is clear that the director, who also helmed the screenplay with Jeff Howard, has not found a way to turn his inspirations into his own. What results is a mediocre film with some good ideas but is only decent during the first twenty minutes because a hypothesis is presented. Kaylie’s goal is to gather physical evidence that a supernatural entity is responsible for destroying her family. I would have liked to have seen that movie because it offers a classic template for good old-fashioned scares.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Seven years after the disappearance of her husband, the very pregnant Tricia (Courtney Bell) had yet to fill out and turn in the requisite paperwork that would officially declare Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) dead in absentia. When Callie (Katie Parker), Tricia’s younger sister, arrived at Tricia’s doorstep, strange things began to occur in the house and around the neighborhood. At night, Tricia was terrorized by what could be Daniel’s angry ghost but she was convinced there had to be a logical explanation. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, “Absentia” was an independent horror film done exactly right, from its increasingly unsettling rising action to an ending that was a perfect fit to its storyline. Before the nicely timed scares were thrown on our laps, we were first given a chance to get to know Tricia as a both a woman in a state of extended grief and someone who deserved to move on with her life. When Callie asked her big sister how she knew it was time for Daniel to be declared legally dead, it was a special and sensitive scene. I was touched by the possibilities that ran in Tricia’s mind, one of which involved Daniel being a NSA agent who had no choice but to drop his life because his identity had somehow been compromised. I appreciated that the writer-director showed love for his characters prior to thrusting them in situations that led to dead-ends with more questions and no easy answers. By doing so, we grew to care for the fates of the sisters. They weren’t just bodies that we anticipated to get sliced and diced when they entered a pitch-black room. We actually wanted to see them unearth the mystery, perhaps struggle a little bit, and walk away once the malevolence had been dispelled. I so relished the build-up of bizarre details, like the sudden appearance of reported missing items and residents from the neighborhood who’d been gone for years, that I found myself shoving food down my throat in order to alleviate the tension. Though the film relied on more than a handful jump scares, none of them felt cheap because there was a variation in the scares. For instance, a certain positioning of a camera led us to believe that once a character turned around after looking around suspiciously, something shocking would be right in front of them. The director was aware of the conventions and it was fun waiting to see if he would fall to the trappings of the genre early on in the picture. If he ever did somewhere down the line, I wouldn’t know. I found myself so enthralled with what was happening, the technical details became less noticeable–as they should be unless done in such a way as to drive a point across. Furthermore, the film utilized flashbacks rather well. When we plunged into them, the scene unfolded quickly, but never manically edited, like looking inside a vivid nightmare that we desperately try to wake up from. “Absentia” was astutely written and directed with a keen eye: actively choosing atmosphere over splatter-fest, imagination over absolute.