Perhaps no other object sold as a toy has had associations as fraught as those of the Ouija board. "Tool of the devil, harmless family game — or fascinating glimpse into the non-conscious mind?" asks the headline of a 2013 Smithsonian.com story that plumbs the strange history of the "talking board" — patented in 1891 and still sold by Hasbro.
Certainly, it's the only toy to have an official tie-in movie series based on the premise that playing with it could kill you. In the hit horror flick Ouija (2014), coproduced by Hasbro, teenagers learn this sad truth all too late.
A prequel rather than a sequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil improves on the original by turning the clock back to 1965 — before The Exorcist popularized the notion of Ouija boards as tools of the devil — and delving deeper into the spiritualist origins of the parlor game. Corny subtitle and all, the second Ouija is a surprisingly decent PG-13 scare flick that won't confuse anyone who hasn't seen the forgettable first film. While it's not the best showcase for up-and-coming horror director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush), it's not a total waste of his gifts, either.
Elizabeth Reaser plays Alice Zander, a widow in suburban LA who makes ends meet by offering psychic readings. She's a fake, playing on the fears and hopes of her clients, but her 9-year-old daughter, Doris (Lulu Wilson), just might have a real pipeline to the beyond. When Alice brings home a Ouija board, hoping to use it in her act, Doris gets chatty with the spirits — to the consternation of her older sister, Lina (Annalise Basso), who just wants the family to be normal. Maybe Lina has a point, because soon a nasty ghost has possessed Doris' body, seeking some sort of ill-defined revenge.
Like the Conjuring movies, Origin of Evil squeezes most of its scares from pacing, sudden jolts and creepy vintage atmosphere. Flanagan gets a lot of mileage from simple manipulations — placing something creepy in the background and out of focus, for instance, or showing it to us while an on-screen character remains oblivious. Artful lighting brings chiaroscuro moodiness to the wood-paneled interiors, and periodic "cigarette burns" in the corner of the frame evoke the days of reel changes — a nice film-geek touch.
As the film progresses, however, it leans too heavily on CG fright effects and backstory, neither of which is its strong point. The latter is especially uninspiring, evoking the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that's both eye-rollingly silly and borderline exploitative. The strong cast — which includes Henry Thomas as the inevitable priest called to the family's aid — does its best to give emotional weight to the material. But by the end, the standard horror beats take over, pushing Origin into the realm of predictability.
In the process, the "talking board" becomes something of a footnote in its own story. An early scene, in which Lina first plays the game at a friend's house, illustrates a central factor in the real-life Ouija phenomenon: confirmation bias. Itching to be scared, the teens naturally interpret the planchette's movements as supernatural. The scene leaves open the possibility that they're duped by their own expectations, just like Alice's clients. It's a cleverly ambiguous setup, but it becomes irrelevant to the film the instant a CG apparition pops up on screen.
A movie that kept the audience in suspense about what was really spelling out those messages — a spirit, or the family's subconscious groupthink? — could be disturbing on a whole different level. Flanagan's effort is certainly an uptick for the Ouija series. But reading the Smithsonian piece — and its long string of comments in which true believers relate their own Ouija experiences — is actually a lot creepier.