Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“It was the closest I’d had to making movies in the backyard.”
Filmmaker Mike Flanagan has proven himself to be a modern master of spine-tingling horror, having co-written and directed everything from the reflective and satisfying scarefest known as OCULUS, to the insular psychological terror that is HUSH, to the yet-to-be-released BEFORE I WAKE.
Though his resume includes originals, he finds himself in the uncharted territory of franchise filmmaking with the prequel to 2014’s OUIJA, the aptly titled OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL.
In the film, a widowed mother (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters (Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson) find themselves powerless when – through the conduit of the titular parlor game – a malevolent spirit possesses the youngest.
We spoke with the affable co-writer/director about the film’s throwback vibe, crafting frights within a certain MPAA rating, and how shooting this film made him feel like a kid again.
What was your reasoning for setting this in 1967 versus any other time?
“I’ve always been fascinated by the 60’s. For one thing, it was the time period my parents were actually the age of Lina in the movie and the age of our intended audience. There’s something really amazing about America in the 1960’s because you’re emerging out of the perceived innocence of the ’50s, you’re seeing a country embroiled in a lot of social and political turmoil. At the same time, you’re seeing some of the most technological advances in the history of human beings. I couldn’t help myself from jamming all this space race stuff into the radio and TV in the movie. I’m obsessed with NASA and the moon landing. It’s also aesthetically really beautiful. A lot of the movies I watched as a child came from the ’60s and ’70s and that’s how I got into a lot of cinema.
We weren’t trying actively to connect it too much to the first film. But when you talk about Doris in the first movie and they show pictures of her and her mother, in the early 60’s in that movie, there was something I really liked. It seemed like there was an opportunity to expand on that story and make it its own thing.”
The film makes this understated connection between the space race and this new parlor game that also goes into a new world of the beyond.
“Yeah. And that idea of exploring completely uncharted places with unforeseen consequences. One of the other things about the Apollo missions in particular was that we didn’t start landing on the moon. First there was Apollo One and sometimes our best intentions can yield some really horrible things. And that’s thematically fun to play with.”
I loved that you peppered in little bits of nostalgia like the old Universal logo, the throwback title card and, my favorite, the cigarette burns in the upper right hand corner.
I thought, “Oh God. Do I need to explain what cigarette burns are to people in my review? Do the kids know?” Did you shoot on film and then transfer to digital, or were those added in post?
“We shot digital. Although we shot digital as if we were shooting on film. We used antique lenses. We used tricks like split diopters, a lot of zooms instead of Steadicams. We all wanted it to feel like the kind of movies we watched as kids. But when we got into post, I had been wishing when we got into production that we could go with a classic logo and the cigarette burns was something I really wanted to try. I really wanted them in there. We had the same concerns – most of the kids aren’t gonna know what that is. But the people who do will love it. I have such vivid memories, as a kid, seeing those just go by and it was just normal. I miss them. Once the studio was absorbing the dailies and the first cuts of the movie were coming out, much to my delight they really wanted to lean into that kind of nostalgia we were feeling when we were shooting it. They said, ‘Hey. Do you want the old logo?’ I said, ‘Yes! I do!’ When we pitched the cigarette burns, there was a moment they kind of reacted, ‘That’s great! Can it also jump the gate a little?’ There’s some dust on the print and you can hear it. And then we all started to get excited about these little imperfections that we try so hard to get out of movies now.”
I thought I heard the audio warbling at one point too.
“Yeah. The mixer got really into it. When he heard we were doing the cigarette burns, he said, ‘I really want to work the audio track like it’s an old print.’ He worked some of the music and dialogue. He added the sound of the dust going through there. We added the gate jump a couple of times. We really took it seriously for something that goes by in two frames. We were really nerding out about it.”
You mentioned that you didn’t actively try to connect these two films, but you and Jeff Howard still worked within the parameters the first film sets up. How did you come about hitting those story beats but then creating another world around them?
“We were always walking a tightrope. It was really important to Jeff and I that people come into this movie and enjoy it even if they hadn’t seen the first movie. Because the first movie, which Blumhouse has been very transparent about acknowledging how the first movie performed critically, the movie performed very well financially. There was a sense there that there was clearly a fan base that drove this movie to $100 million worldwide. I don’t want to completely slam the door on that regardless how it was perceived critically. It’s important that we try to maintain some kind of connection, but to do it in a way that lets us tell our story. That’s a little bit of a juggling act when we’re writing, but it also presents an interesting challenge. We have three things we know have to happen but everything else is up to us. Trying to find a way to subvert the expectations of exactly how those three things occur and by whom, that was fun too. It’s a tricky balance to try to make this movie stand up on its own two feet while also being part of a larger franchise universe.”
I noticed subtle nods to THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN. Were there others in there I missed?
“We watched THE CHANGELING quite a bit in prep. Aesthetically we did a number of things with the camera and scene construction I thought were really, really powerful in THE CHANGELING. We watched THE EXORCIST a lot. THE OMEN. POLTERGEIST. There’s actually quite a bit of Jerry Goldsmith in the work the Newton Brothers did with the score. There are moments in there…one scene where Alice and her daughters are sitting around the Ouija board together for the first time. The track the guys put together for that sounds, to my ear, like vintage Goldsmith. Little touches like that. We were pretty certain THE EXORCIST comparisons were going to happen and we were also trying very hard to emulate things about that movie. Exorcisms have become a pretty familiar trope to the point they are expected. It was really fun to build up a movie that had a priest and possessed girl that did not have an exorcism.
For me, it was all about how do I approximate the experience I had when I was 13 and first seeing horror movies, dipping my toe into the genre as a viewer. And how do I recreate that for a contemporary audience. There’s this misconception out there that PG-13 – horror in particular – isn’t as worthy as its R-rated counterpart. I’ve done R-rated horror and I’ve done PG-13 and I don’t see a distinction between them other than the duration and the amount of blood that can be shown. When it comes to character, tension and atmosphere, they’re not different in my eyes. For us, it’s like, why shouldn’t a 13-year-old get to have some sophisticated aesthetics, careful filmmaking and three dimensional characterization? Don’t they deserve that too?”
What did you learn about yourself making this film?
“Oh wow. Each movie is its own universe, for me. I always come into them and leave them as a slightly different person that’s for sure. For this one, it was the closest I’d had to making movies in the backyard. All of the movies are challenging in their own way and they all have the same problems – there’s never enough time, money and they are always racing against the sun. With this one, I’d never gotten to go back to that very childlike love of sitting in the theater. That was something I didn’t anticipate with this. When the conversation first started about this, it wasn’t something I expected. What I learned – that I’m really grateful to have learned – is that 12-year-old who used to run around the backyard with his VHS camera making movies is still in here somewhere. That was very gratifying. I hope some viewers get to feel a little bit of that when they watch it.”
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL opens on Friday, Oct. 21.
Header Photo: Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.