It was the horror sequel nobody asked for: despite the obscene box office success of 2014’s Ouija, it fared almost as poorly with genre fans as it did critically. However, the horror genre is no stranger to unwanted attempts to magic up franchise potential from thin air, so mere months after its original theatrical run, a follow-up was confirmed. Set expectations to zero.
All of a sudden, though, Ouija 2 showed signs of promise. Confirmed to be a prequel (set in 1967, a full 45 years before the events of the original and therefore blissfully absolved of any responsibility to establish any substantial connection to it), it was also confirmed that genre darling Mike Flanagan (Hush, Oculus) was to write and direct. Against all odds, was the freshly-retitled Ouija: Origin of Evil going to be 2016’s biggest surprise? Not quite, but what we do have here is a film that significantly improves upon its predecessor without necessarily reinventing the wheel – it’s a satisfying, effective multiplex horror that continues to establish Flanagan as one of the genre’s leading lights when it comes to both playing up to and subverting mainstream audience expectations.
Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is a widower who, with the aid of her daughters Lina (Annalise Basso, working with Flanagan for the second time after a great performance in Oculus) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), stages fake “seances” where paying customers can communicate with their dead relatives. Believing their business to provide people with closure rather than “scamming” them, whatever it is they’re doing, it evidently isn’t lucrative, as the family are hit with a foreclosure notice on their home early in the film. In an attempt to spice up their act, she purchases an Ouija board, and as youngest daughter Doris claims to be able to communicate with her deceased father, Origin of Evil‘s central mystery is mostly concerned with whether she’s right, and if she isn’t, exactly what or who it is she’s actually talking to, as events begin to take a darker turn.
Flanagan continues to have an eye and ear for a slickly-executed jump-scare, but there’s more to this than cheap cliches. While some of the film’s “shock” moments are painfully easy to spot, the director deserves credit for sidestepping some obvious set-pieces, and producing some deeply unsettling imagery into the bargain. Furthermore, the film’s real lifeblood is in its performances: there’s not a weak link in the chain here. Basso excels again here as Lina, the skeptic in the family out to unravel the mystery, and the show is truly stolen by Lulu Wilson, who alternates superbly between childishly innocent and disconcertingly sinister without missing a beat. All in all, while it probably won’t be remembered as a classic, Ouija: Origin of Evil marks a truly remarkable recovery for the series (as it may well now turn out to be), and yet another hit for one of the genre’s most consistent new directors.