All Horror Prequels Should Be Like Ouija: Origin of Evil
We don’t deserve how funny, scary, and well-made this movie is.
There’s been a resurgence of the occult in the online generation. Even presidential elections are not immune to our dabblings in the predictive and supernatural, as candidates are asked their birth times for more accurate assessments. People can get their charts done, tarot read, and auras diagnosed with a few clicks and, of course, a few dollars. Ouija: Origin of Evil, a prequel to (in so much as it also features Hasbro’s spirit-channeling board) 2014’s Ouija embraces another era of spiritual revival by focusing its board game horrors on a family running a scam psychic shop in the ‘60s.
The Zander family knows how to play to their audience, like most horror movies do. Their complex contraptions are the precise effects and shot constructions of the genre scaled down to a more accessible physical technology. We see the motorized rattling desk and the hidden bellows that mysteriously blow out candles during seances. Earning our trust, pulling back the curtain, makes us even more susceptible to what comes next.
The elder Zander daughter, Paulina (Annalise Basso), sneaks to a friend’s house to drink secretly spiked coffee and hang around the local heartthrob (Parker Mack). When the host offers up the spirit board’s planchette, the kids hesitantly agree – leading to a deliciously undercut bit of humor as the party is parentally interrupted.
Origin of Evil, while terrifying, is a funny movie that understands its audience’s psychological state better than most films of its ilk. It knows when to give us the charming carrot before lashing us with a tense, atmospheric whip.
Humor has a lot to do with fear. The dissociated expression of a deep fear in a context that reduces that fear is one of the mechanisms of both humor and horror – we get a few surprising cats jumping from dark corners to reassure us that there was never a ghost there at all, silly us.
You see it in Mr. Magoo cartoons when the near-blind everyman rides girders and hugs dangerous beasts thinking they’re his great-aunt Mabel. In these comedies, like in horror movies, the loose and often rote plot is about improbable survival – something we never tire of. Whether the lone survivor perseveres through grit or magical ineptitude, they make it through the worst the world can throw at them. The laughs and scares all end with us at the same place: reassured by closure against our nightmares.
These nightmares are certainly here, the somehow logical conclusion of messing with powers we cannot understand. Director Mike Flanagan (the jack-of-all-trades known for writing, directing, and editing well-received horror films Oculus and Hush) and cinematographer Michael Fimognari work together to create a horror film that truly respects craft. Shots aren’t just beautiful, they’re also functional – characters are trapped in the house by a framing zoom through a car window or stalked by a little too much open space behind them than we’re fully comfortable with. We know something should be sneaking up, but Flanagan and Fimognari tease us just enough to keep us unblinking, so even if the boogiemen get the stars, at least we will be prepared.
The production design helps build this setting, which is of utmost importance in horror, particularly haunted house movies. Knowing the confines of your time and place makes it feel more real and thus, scary. The loud colors of the era and alternatively flowing and tight clothing of the late ’60s contrast with the bleakness of Origin of Evil’s horrors and the buttoned-up authority of the kid’s Catholic school principal, Father Tom (Henry Thomas). That the cinematic style further immerses us in the ’60s with its measured whip-pans, aerial maneuvering, and record player-influenced slow-mo is just icing. Horror movies rarely have this level of care – entries in a horror franchise even less so.
This sensibility also possesses the script. Family relationships are earned, as is their spirituality and relationship to the dead. The girls attend Catholic school but pray to their dead father – they just want to talk to him again. When they have the chance to reach out to the other side, of course they take it – bolstered further by mama Zander’s (Elizabeth Reaser) romantic loneliness and financial woes. It makes sense that her desperation would leave her believing in the Ouija – just like the scams she pulled on her supernatural-seeking clientele.
Like any good haunted house movie, Origin of Evil examines this relationship between human and supernatural evil, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about just how scary it is. The great small cast, including the best freaky little girl (Lulu Wilson) since The Exorcist, sells the whole show as the spirit world infests their home. Inventive, shocking deaths and terrifying effects reinforce the acting until the monster design hits the big scream moments. Sure there are jump scares, but the film’s so well put together that you’re jumping at the slightest suggestion.
The ending muddles its thesis and the supernatural rules it sets for itself (including a protective magical ward that seems to just stop working) but is startling enough to remain effective. Even if its tonal jump prevents it from joining the pantheon of horror deities, its craft and some genuinely witty nods to a horror-loving audience give us a film that traffics in expertise, not innovation.