Ouija: Origin of Evil March 14, 2017
Who would have thought that the prequel to one of the worst horror movies of the decade, 2014’s shamelessly cobbled together Ouija, would end up laughing in the face of our preconceived notions, pull a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), and outdo its paltry predecessor? I certainly never expected to see such an improvement, and the more I speculate the more impressed I am that 2016’s Origin of Evil manages to do more than just rise above its cinematic ancestor’s badness. (Though I suppose anything, even the consumption of, say, an uncooked Thanksgiving turkey, is more pleasant a task than watching the garbage pile of dead teenager movie clichés that overwhelmed the ‘14 film).
In addition to verifying that it’s its own separate, proficiently shot animal, Origin of Evil surprisingly materializes as a high point in modern horror. I could also just be a sucker for co-writer/director Mike Flanagan’s audacious choice to produce the movie in the style of the scare-fests of the 1960s and ‘70s, intentionally placed cue marks and rough transitions abounding to add flavor (and to apparently cause me to ceaselessly chuckle with delight).
But because the movie’s terrors are so gallant and because it ends on a note that keeps us unsettled long after the closing credits appear before us, it seems unfitting that Origin of Evil even have a connection to its atrocious precursor. The latter was a clumsy attempt to make money, whereas the former is a singular, well-made piece as simultaneously humanistic and frightening as the best works of Wes Craven. I’d even go as far as comparing it to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), but perhaps I’m prone to dramatics in a current theatrical landscape wherein horror masterworks are few and far between. For now, though, I’ll stand by the commendation.
Origin of Evil, set in Los Angeles in the late ‘60s, stars Elizabeth Reaser as Alice Zander, a widow making a living by acting as a spiritual medium as her daughters, Lina and Doris (Annalisse Basso and Lulu Wilson), try to grapple with their father’s recent passing. Familial ties have become sensitive as a result of Mr. Zander’s untimely demise, but the having of each other is something of a strength. Lina is wise beyond her years, and Alice, despite essentially lying for a job, is an attentive, morally grounded mother who couldn’t live without her children by her side. Doris, by contrast, is still coming to terms with the shift in her personal life and is struggling in school.
A return to normalcy is imminent – only a matter of readjustment – but Alice accidentally spoils chances of domestic rehabilitation when she unwisely decides to incorporate a Ouija board into her occupational schtick. Immediately breaking one of the rules stamped across the box (Hasbro warns to never use the board alone), Alice unknowingly comes in contact with a spirit named Marcus.
Initially, changes in the home environment seem minimal. But as time drags on is it abundantly clear that Doris, so sweet and so vulnerable, has been possessed by that said spirit, who is possibly even more vengeful than the beast who took over Linda Blair’s body back in ‘73.
Like Oculus (2013), his disturbing psychological thriller that concluded on an unforgettably bleak note, Flanagan is similarly uninterested in a finale that isn’t steeped in nihilism. Origin of Evil, akin to the best of horror movies, gets us to care about its ensemble immensely and then betrays our emotional connection by thrusting its characters into precarious situations that they’ll never be able to easily recover from.
Origin of Evil has one of the more dreary genre endings in recent memory – whereas most of its peers, including 2012’s Mama and 2016’s Lights Out, prefer tidy endings that at least contain a small glimmer of hope, Flanagan’s movie is decidedly forlorn. But that’s among its most notable features. Origin of Evil is a terror train with the balls necessary to live up to the its cinematic classification. They don’t call ‘em horror movies so we can indulge ourselves in a sigh of relief late in the game, and Flanagan recognizes that unsaid truth. There’s no real resolution in place, and that’s a virtue.
I additionally took a liking to the way the film’s band of actors fleshes out multifaceted performances almost too good to dwell in your standard exorcism movie. They make waves in parts that might have been mundanely stock without their performative dedication.
Reaser is moving as a mother trying to make the best of dire circumstances – both before the movie becomes a full-fledged horror picture and after – and Basso gives us glimpses into the world of a mature teenage girl who wants nothing more than to be taken seriously and to be taken to the prom by the guy that she likes and likes her back (Parker Mack).
But it’s Wilson, an 11-year-old blonde with saucer eyes, who runs away with the movie, making the done-to-death Creepy Kid horror trope scary for the first time in years. There’s a scene in the movie where a possessed Wilson malevolently explains to a character in great detail what it feels like to be strangled to death, and we find ourselves as petrified as the innocent she’s relaying the info to. She’s committed to her part in ways child actors rarely are, and she’s stunning to behold.
And so is Origin of Evil, which manages to be among 2016’s great revelations. What might have been an overt method for Universal to line their pockets actually turns out to be a gem. Considering how dry the horror well has been in recent years, the film’s efficiency is as pleasant a surprise as any. One can only applaud Flanagan for overseeing such a grand scale reversal in quality and succeeding extravagantly. B+