2016 has been a jaw-dropping year for horror movies, and some truly chilling and spectacular films have arrived in unexpected places. A new Blair Witch movie surprised and terrified in equal measure, two directorial wunderkinds delivered Hitchcockian masterpieces, indie filmmakers broke onto the scene with some gripping revelations, and James Wan once again proved that he's one of the best in the business with The Conjuring 2. We're at the beginning of a new horror revolution, and judging based on what I've seen from 2017's horror offerings, which will include films like Split, A Cure for Wellness, and Get Out, this year is only the beginning. While we've seen a lot of shockingly good films and a few box office sleeper hits, no film is quite as surprising as Mike Flanagan's Ouija: Origin of Evil. A sequel to a much-maligned board game adaptation, which sits at a paltry 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, Origin of Evil has no right to even be remotely good. But after early reviews crept out and the Tomato score stood at 81%, people began wondering- did Flanagan pull it off?
Sure enough, the director of the critically acclaimed Oculus and Hush has delivered a terrifying retro chiller that manages to be delightfully spooky every step of the way. A nerve-wracking cross between The Exorcist and The Shining, Origin of Evil moves the action back to the 1960s, giving Flanagan the opportunity to blend intense action, nightmarish imagery, and period detail into one beautiful concoction. With this film, Flanagan has crafted a true B-movie, a gloriously trashy horror film that bathes in its good, ole' fashioned style, which manages to be seedy and glossy at the same time. It's both terror-inducing and psychologically effective, a strange combination that we don't see all that often these days. Origin of Evil doesn't quite reach the heights of 2016's best horror offerings, but it's a gleefully disturbing carnival ride that will delight chill-seekers and genre fans in equal measure.
Origin of Evil is the story of the Zander family, a group of fake fortune-tellers and mediums who scam people out of their money. The family is comprised of Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso), and Doris (Lulu Wilson)- on an important note, their father died very recently. They're just struggling to get by, working hard every day to perfect their somewhat dicey show. Alice is finding it hard to cope with her husband's death, Lina is sneaking out at night to hang with her friends, and Doris is just a bundle of sunshine as usual, despite hints of grief. As sales continue to decline and eviction notices start to become a threat, Alice looks for ways to spice up the show. Lina suggests a Ouija board after a night of playing with her friends, and while Alice is initially resistant to the idea, she picks one up at a local store and begins to use it.
However, there are three important rules with the Ouija board, and after barely a day of having the board in the day, Doris breaks the rules. And that's not good. Spooky things begin happening in the house, and soon enough, the board is moving around by itself and Doris begins to display some special abilities. Alice sees this as a special chance to make a profit, but others are quite concerned, including Father Tom Hogan (Henry Thomas), a local priest at the children's school, as well as Lina and her boyfriend (Parker Mack). As the evidence piles up, it soon becomes abundantly clear that there are supernatural happenings in the Zander household. But as Father Tom and Alice dig deeper into the history of the demons haunting the house, they'll find the embodiment of pure evil that they never could have expected.
Ouija: Origin of Evil has the distinct quality of being both terrifying and creepy, two things that surprisingly don't go together often in horror movies. You usually have either an underlying sense of dread or a relentless devotion to scaring the audience out of their seats, but rarely both. Origin of Evil is one of those rare occasions. For starters, it delivers the jump scares that horror fans have always come to expect, but it does so in a startlingly effective way. Director Mike Flanagan continually finds a way to shock you and throw you off guard with this film, upending predictability at every turn. But Flanagan simultaneously finds a way to leave you unsettled, a quality that doesn't get enough love in the horror realm these days. I found myself slightly shaken by Origin of Evil- it's a roller-coaster of fun, but it also has some truly disturbing moments that will be seared in your mind. That's a unique combination, and something that Flanagan pulls off with ease.
Part of the appeal of this film is the throwback style, which has garnered quite a bit of attention. When I first saw the trailer in front of The Purge back in July, the 1960s setting and retro furnishings caught my eye well before the reviews ever poured in. I didn't see the original Ouija back in 2014, but I was immediately intrigued by Origin of Evil simply because of the visual look of the film. James Wan used period detail to his advantage in both Conjuring films, and whoever at Universal decided to roll with that idea for their Ouija prequel is a genius. However, where Wan utilized the nostalgic setting to masterfully craft two of the great horror films of the decade, Flanagan uses it to turn Origin of Evil into pulpy high trash.
This looks like a true film of the late 1960s, which was only recently dug up and released into theaters. The old Universal logo kicks everything off, and from there, Flanagan never lets us forget what kind of movie we're watching. Scratches and cigarette marks flick across the screen at random intervals, giving an added sense of authenticity and terror to every moment. Flanagan never wants the old-fashioned cinematic approach to be distracting (he's not going for Tarantino's Death Proof here), but each scene reminds us that, yes, this is probably the coolest B-movie we'll see all year. Everything in Origin of Evil seems to have a layer of dust and grime caked over it, even in the sunny, chic landscape of Los Angeles. But it goes beyond the old-fashioned accessories- just the way that Origin of Evil plays out as a horror film feels like a throwback. It's hard to put into words what exactly Flanagan has done here, but it's an impressive achievement in cleverly trashy filmmaking.
Ouija also has some surprisingly effective performances, a rarity in the horror landscape. Elizabeth Reaser delivers a nuanced turn as Alice, a mother who is working her hardest to take care of her family under extremely difficult circumstances. Reaser's pain is felt during some strong emotional moments, but it's abundantly clear from the beginning that her judgment will be taking a turn for the worse as the film progresses. Annalise Basso (Oculus, Captain Fantastic) is also spectacular, and she has a fascinating dynamic with both her mother and sister. Henry Thomas (yes, Elliott himself) is very compelling as Father Hogan, a character who is dealing with some grief of his own. It's an interesting decision by Flanagan to create a film centered around characters dealing with loss, which proves to be quite gripping at every turn. But even with this stellar set of performances, the one that everyone will be talking about comes from Lulu Wilson. As the possessed Doris, Wilson is straight-up terrifying- she has a monologue that will send chills up your spine. It's one of the best child performances in a long time.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year so far, a nerve-jangling thrill ride that is much scarier and more handsomely made than it has any right to be. Flanagan just barely misses the mark on a few elements, but it's absolutely stunning how crystal clear his vision for this schlocky project is. He executes the scares and chills with extreme precision, firmly establishing him as a horror director that we need to watch. Combining excellent performances, top-notch direction, and outstanding art design to great effect, Origin of Evil manages to be another deliciously scary treat in a spooky year for horror films. You won't see it coming, but it will scare the hell out of you.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (7.7/10)
Image Credits: Coming Soon, IMDB, Universal Pictures