On the outset, "Ouija: Origin of Evil" has all the appearances of a shopworn affair: a sequel to a movie based on a board game about a young girl bedeviled by diabolical spirits. That's a logline plenty of films could sport (save for the board game element). You've seen innumerable iterations of the "demonic child threatens to destroy tight-knit family" story in the past.
What you haven't seen is director Mike Flanagan's blissful disregard for convention. Equal parts horror masterclass and internal home-invasion thriller, "Ouija" is as chilling and nerve-racking as they come. It's a sort of cinematic heart attack -- irreparably damaging to the body and mind, with a slow recovery time.
It begins peaceful and playful enough in the Zander's living room, Los Angeles, 1967, where it's business as usual. In their case, the business is a séance scam run by widowed mom Alice (Elizabeth Reaser, "Young Adult") and her two daughters, Doris (Lulu Wilson, "The Millers") and Paulina (Annalise Basso, "Captain Fantastic"). Naive (but hopeful) customers have come to speak to deceased relatives, family members whom Alice tells clients she can reach via an otherworldly connection.
That connection is a lie, of course. People believe what they want to believe, and Alice suggests to her children (who help with the showmanship of the performance) that she's doing a good deed. She's providing a unique, slightly fabricated service to people in need.
A couple of things immediately strike the viewer early on. First, Reaser is magnetic as the single-mother: an engaging mix of forceful, clever, confident and sexy. Second, there's an artfulness in the presentation here that immediately clues you into "Ouija's" many gifts, like the Wes Anderson-inspired symmetry of the compositions or the note-perfect, period-specific details (the music, fashion, color palette).
Then the story pivots, as the family unwittingly invites a fiendish entity into the house. It's unclear whether it's a disembodied spirit or phantom. It doesn't exactly matter. Whatever it is, it has consumed Doris, the younger of Alice's two girls. Soon, a family trying to recover from the death of the patriarch has to face something much more threatening: a grade-schooler tormented by a deranged creature -- or presence -- whose sole mission is to kill.
Coming off the heels of "Max Steel" last weekend, there's something oddly serendipitous about the timing of "Ouija." Here are two films birthed from preexisting commercial products that take antithetical approaches to storytelling. Where Stewart Hendler's teenage human-robot excursion suffered from technical difficulties on all fronts, Flanagan ("Oculus") shines.
Under Jeff Howard and Flanagan's adroit script, "Ouija: Origin of Evil" is a self-aware horror film that manages to still have a self. It doesn't drown in irony, sarcasm or cinematic knowingness; it's not "Cabin in the Woods." But it is aware of the clichés of contemporary horror: characters splintering off in the face of danger, silence punctuated by grating sounds, a possessed child driven by malevolence. These are obvious trappings, and "Ouija" upends all of them.
Doris has been consumed by unknown, nefarious entities, but her mental unhinging is gradual. It's also not one-sided. Sure, she becomes more threatening, but she's also sustaining the family business and, ostensibly, aiding desperate customers in search of reaching the other side. When it comes to the quick, unexpected scares, Flanagan earns them. "Ouija" doesn't rely on jump cuts or sonically assaultive noises to jolt viewers. He's much craftier. The film slowly builds, luring us into a moving or engaging interaction before swiftly pivoting to shock horror: a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of an unnerving specter, or a noosed body, swinging from the ceiling into the foyer.
Even when you want to avert your eyes, you can't. That's in part because of Michael Fimognari's impeccable cinematography. On a streak with modern genre (he also recently shot "Oculus," "Beautiful Boy," and "The Lazarus Effect"), Fimognari brings such a tasteful, sumptuous touch to "Ouija." This is self-evident in the powerful moments bolstered by his roving camera, which languidly wanders in and out of rooms, giving the impression of improvisation -- and yet nothing here just happens. "Ouija" is as skillfully refined and calculated as studio filmmaking gets.
Conversely, Fimognari is unafraid to hold on a shot -- a gesturing face, a static body, an empty hallway -- for an extended period of time. The silence and emptiness of some images are so staggering they become filled by audience reactions: shortness of breath, audible gasps, outright dread.
That last part aptly describes how I felt sitting in the dark, watching "Ouija" for 99 minutes. It didn't matter that there were plenty of people all around me. Under Flanagan's impressive direction, I felt completely alone in the milieu he had constructed. To be both aesthetically and narratively enthralled in the proceedings is a rare feat, especially for a genre replete with vacuous, cheap fare. But there's nothing second-rate or lackluster about "Oujia: Origin of Evil." It reckons with the afterlife and the spirit world with uncommon intellectual curiosity.
The film paints characters as three-dimensional humans, trapped in an inescapable hellscape of their own design. It then dives head-first into the disturbing psychology of these people. It does all of this for its entire running time, without pause or dips in quality. And you know what? I mean this in the best way possible: I don't ever want to see it again.