Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, 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’s a rarity when a prequel actually surpasses its original, but such is the case with co-writer-director Mike Flanagan’s OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard (no relation) construct solidly-earned scares and emotions from the modest blueprint bequeathed to them by the filmmakers of the original. It’s terrifically terrifying, wickedly scary and fantastically frightening. This is an instant classic that will have you screaming in your seat and cowering behind the seat in front of you – especially anytime a character picks up the planchette.
Flanagan and Howard’s prologue of sorts builds brilliantly upon the first chapter in the OUIJA saga. It’s Los Angeles 1967 – an era when trepidations about space exploration collide with fears surrounding Parker Brothers’ mass release of the titular spooky parlor game. Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser, who always turns in a world-class performance) is a recently-widowed mother taking care of daughters Lina (Annalise Basso, who gives a star-making turn) and Doris (played by the incomparable Lulu Wilson) the best she can, scamming customers as a fortune teller. But business is drying up and she needs a new gimmick. Enter the Ouija board! However, what seems like a heavenly idea quickly morphs into a hellacious ordeal when nine-year-old Doris becomes a possessed conduit for a malevolent spirit.
Working within the confines of the original doesn’t hinder Flanagan and Howard. They use clever techniques to expand Doris and Lina’s story to where the reveals are unexpected. Most surprising is that, at its core, this is a grief-tinged drama about a family trying to keep it together post-tragedy. There are a shedload of earned scares, but it remains blessedly-free of cheap jump scares – the bane of existence for horror fans. The filmmakers also balance the mounting intensity with tension-relief humor that wafts in and out of a few of the sequences (like when Doris describes what strangulation feels like to her sister’s boyfriend, played by Parker Mack).
Not only is this much more satisfying than the franchise’s previous iteration, Flanagan delightfully pays homage to horror classics in subtle, but ingenious ways: Father Tom’s (Henry Thomas) involvement, and Doris’ predilection for scurrying around and contorting are clearly influenced by THE EXORCIST. It’s hard to ignore the parallels between this and THE OMEN – especially in the scene on the playground as Doris turns the tables on a bully. It would give Damien gleeful fits of laughter. And The Newton Brothers’ score sounds like vintage Jerry Goldsmith circa POLTERGEIST, another terrifying film about a family trying to stay together despite a supernatural presence.
Throwback techniques prove vital in augmenting the picture’s atmosphere and tone. They make good use of the nostalgia factor, mining minute finishing touches for gold. Cinephiles will be hard-pressed to wipe a slap happy grin off their face when they see Universal’s old logo, the throwback-inspired title card, slow fades, and cigarette burns (something projectionists would use to cue the next film reel) in the top right hand corner. The “film” even jumps the gate a few times. It’s transportive, innovative filmmaking. Plus, Flanagan pushes his visual style forward, experimenting with camera movements and De Palma-esque split diopters.
Though there are a few small hiccups here and there, the filmmakers clearly created this with great craft and care. It’s a shame that some people may write this one off if the opening chapter didn’t hook them. However, for those willing to give the series another chance, this goes beyond what we’ve seen the franchise, and prequels in general, can do – scare us silly into submission.
Oh and make sure to stay through the end credits as there’s a tag at the very end.
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL opens on October 21.