Sequels are only occasionally better than the original. Sequels to horror movies are rarely worth watching. Sequels to terrible horror movies are disgraces that deserve to be cast into the pits of direct-to-DVD hell. And yet somehow, Ouija: Origin of Evil — the prequel to 2014’s utterly abominable Ouija — manages to break the curse, delivering a genuinely good little horror film that will satiate your taste for the demonic.
How this film turned out so well isn’t actually much of a mystery. Ouija: Origin of Evil’s writer/director, indie horror aficionado Mike Flanagan, is a virtuoso at scaring a lot with very little. His indie horror film from earlier this year, Hush, was a mean and lean success with a budget of only $70,000 (the Hollywood equivalent of two pennies you found on the ground). Here, the little he has to work with is the original Ouija, but Flanagan crafts his own beast with his signature sinister simplicity.
Despite a flimsy screenplay, Ouija: Origin of Evil’s audio and visual mastery (and creepy little girl) could make it The Exorcist’s slimmer cousin. I forgot it was a prequel for most of its runtime, which is a compliment given its reason for existence.
Our main characters are the sincerely likable Zander family: recently widowed mother Alice and her two young daughters Paulina and Doris. Their family business is tricking people into ‘talking with lost loved ones’ through fake séances, which becomes all too real when Alice brings home a Ouija board for the act and Doris promptly begins communicating with possibly her dead father and definitely some malevolent spirits.
Because the original was set in modern day, this film is set in the 60s. Thankfully, Flanagan doesn’t leave it at that: the set design and general vibe of Origin of Evil recall the streamlined nature of horrors of old. There are even cigarette burns and artificial grain thrown over the crisp footage to further tickle your nostalgia. This isn’t a film concerned with reinventing the horror wheel or integrating modern technology to keep the young’uns happy. This is a film concerned with giving you a good old-fashioned heart attack.
Or eleven heart attacks. Origin of Evil goes the jump scare route for most of its scream-worthy moments, but it does it so well that there’s no reason to complain. Flanagan doesn’t prefer the slow burn and subliminal style of horrors such as Lights Out, or the chilling ambiance and sustained tension of horrors like The Conjuring. This is a series of disconnected but terrifying jump scares, through and through.
Each shocking moment has its own buildup, and that’s where Flanagan exercises his greatest strength. The visual composition and sound design of the film drag us gently into the perfect frame (both physically and of mind) to be subjected to one dreadful fright at a time. Misleading camera movements, background ticking clocks, otherworldly special effects — they all work together in harmony for a single heart attack inducer, and then are tossed away in preparation for the next one.
While this style was scary enough in the moment to legitimately cause my asthma to flare up, it doesn’t leave an impression once it’s over. Origin of Evil is no longer a threat after you walk out the door. The greatest horror films unsettle a part of you that stays permanently shaken. The closest this movie comes to scarring its audience is the possessed face of little girl Doris: her white eyes and fixed smile still haunt me a day later, which is a credit to both the young actress and Flanagan’s taste for striking imagery. I pray I never have a daughter.
The screenplay, though it excels at character creation and wit (this is easily one of the funniest horror films in recent memory), it does falter in the dialogue realm. Too many lines sound like they were written to be important, but they just come off as robotic — especially during the ending, when Ouija: Origin of Evil suddenly remembers to set up its sequel. Otherwise, this is a worthwhile Halloween season experience that’s better than you thought it’d be.