OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016) dir. Mike Flanagan

Director: Mike Flanagan
Producers: Michael Bay, Jason Blum, Stephen Davis, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Brian Goldner
Writers: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Stars: Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, Elizabeth Reaser

The Ouija board is a remnant of Spiritualism by now so hackneyed that the archetype does not so much conjure up demons for audiences as it does eye rolls. Leave it to Mike Flanagan (HUSH [2016], OCULUS [2009]), horror’s latest darling, to revitalize a plot device that is otherwise dead (no pun intended).

“Doris, listen to me. A scam is a lie. We don’t lie; we help people. We give them closure, we give them peace, we heal their hearts . . . that’s something that can’t happen without a little showmanship.”

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016)

Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), widowed and raising a teenager and small girl alone in the 1960s, is looking to spruce up her business when the film begins. Clients, who come to her to communicate with the dead during séances in her dining room—a con pulled off in part due to daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) who, in the (dis)honored tradition of the Fox sisters, furtively blow out candles and rap on wood to create the illusion of spirit communication—have been fleeing after readings, often without paying, either unconvinced or unsettled by the events of the séance. Fatefully, Lina tools around with a Ouija board at a friend’s party—classic—and on the car ride home, mentions it to Alice: “It was actually pretty fun. You should consider getting one for the act.” Lo and behold, when Alice drops by the store to replenish her candle supply, a board is prominently displayed and she grabs one on impulse. The success of the act shifts in a positive direction . . . everything else, not so much.

The Ouija board in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (in all of its mid-century glory). (Image courtesy of Horror Freak News.)

The power of director Mike Flanagan’s films partly lies in his canny ability to simultaneously weave a frightening story of horror and engage viewers in the drama of characters, who we cannot help but connect to and, over the course of the film, care about. A prime example in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016) is Lina who, as spirits inevitably invade, is tackling the various hurdles of adolescence, often in moving detail. Played by Annalise Basso (who also shines in Flanagan’s 2009 gem, OCULUS), Lina experiences metaphorical losses implied by her coming-of-age (youth, innocence, blissful ignorance) doubled by new, tangible, physical losses, which are naturally depicted in gruesome detail.

As usual, Annalise Basso shines as Lina. Her portrayal is engrossing and deeply personal, linking viewers to the tough, inquisitive teenager she plays. (Image courtesy of ComingSoon.net.)

A variation on archetypes of possession, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL must predominantly concern the threat of the newly empowered teenage girl to systems of patriarchy (represented here, as in most possession films, by the sturdy religious structure of church and Catholic school and personified by the priest, Tom Hogan [Henry Thomas]), but in a break with tradition, Lina is not the one possessed by subversive energies. Instead, Doris is—and her vulnerability lies not in the precarious self-formation stage of adolescence, but instead in the loss of her father, an experience of grief which has left a gaping hole. Film critic Nicholas Barber writes (in one of my favorite quotes, which I have used countless times in my critical writing and will likely repeat on this blog if I haven’t already): “. . . exorcism movies are about dads and daughters.” In OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, this characterization of possession flicks could not be more fitting; the loss of Lina and Doris’s father and his subsequent replacement with a demonic force (gendered male), are the most obvious links. Additionally, Tom, a human representative of Our Heavenly Father, no less, reiterates his status as patriarch by briefly courting Alice and, thus, teasing the possibility of step-fatherhood. OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is equally a film about possession and about a haunting, the haunting being the supernatural home invasion, all the more frightfully plausible in a home without the advantage of a male protector.

Doris (Lulu Wilson), peering  beyond the living. (Image courtesy of  Entertainment Weekly.)

Even aside from the delicious intellectual romp through the traditions of exorcisms and hauntings alike that OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL invites, the film is great fun, rich in the lush texture of 1960s America, suspenseful in its alternating frightening night sequences and tense daytime scenes, and peppered with so-called “jump scares” that will set viewers’ hearts a-thumpin.’ Fans of Flanagan will relish this latest addition to his ouvre.

CONTENT WARNINGS:

  • Blood
  • Hate violence (anti-Semitic; mentioned)
  • Hanging
  • Holocaust imagery

Gore: N/A

Horror: ★★★

Suspense: ★★★

Terror: ★★★★

Quality: ★★★★

Overall: ★★★★

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