Tuesday 8 November 2016

Ouija: Origin Of Evil (2016) - Movie Review

A couple years back, I looked at a fun little slice of psychological horror with Oculus. Since then, director/co-writer Mike Flanagan has been keeping himself busy. And by "busy", I mean "Good God, how does one person have that much motivation?!" because he has all of three films slated for this year alone. I’m exhausted just thinking about that amount of effort, so hats off to him. Then again, that kind of aptitude is usually reserved for people who make schlock, porn or both, so maybe this arrangement isn’t as ideal as it sounds. Then again again, having seen this film, I couldn’t be more excited to check out the other two because… wow, this is something else.

The plot: Alice (Elizabeth Reaser), a fortune teller, is struggling with raising two daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) since the death of her husband while also using her fortune telling racket to barely keep the house theirs. However, once they decide to incorporate a Ouija board into their routine, it seems like they might have a genuine connection to the other side after all. While they are initially happy with this turn of events, it seems that the other side isn’t nearly as benevolent as they thought.

Since we’re dealing with a prequel this time around, and it’s a film I watched recently in prep for this review, I might as well get into that film quickly. It’s gone down as one of the worst horror films in recent years, and while I certainly agree with that assessment, it’s not for the usual anger-inducing reasons. I mean, it has a couple decent ideas in it like making amends with the dead and the characters aren’t the usual loathsome bunch I’ve come to expect from modern horror flicks. However, its biggest fault lies with director Stiles White, whom I’m convinced had literally zero idea how to make a horror film. I mean, the lack of effort in trying to scare the audience, or make us care in any significant way, is ultimately what held it back. It’s terrible but, unlike other recent bad horror flicks like The Apparition and Paranormal Activity 4, it isn’t even useful as a guide on how not to film horror. Instead, it just serves as an example of what happens when a filmmaker with little to no passion for the art makes a film: It fills up space and nothing else.

Contrast that with this film, where Flanagan and Oculus co-writer Jeff Howard knew exactly what they were doing with this film, starting fittingly enough with the title. While the first film had a very basic and dull depiction of the titular board game, this went every conceivable step further in fleshing it out. For one, through the inclusion of a fortune teller as a main character, it shows an understanding of the tools and tricks of the trade that makes for some interesting scenes where the family is doing their work. For another, it complements that with the inclusion of actual spectral contact, giving plenty of time to how the two work together in surprising ways. One of the best scenes in the film is how they decipher how the readings have been as accurate as they have been since they started using the board… using some of the most cold-brick logic of any film this year. Being able to combine the explainable and the unexplainable this seamlessly is breathtaking to behold, making for another amazing moment in a film chock-full of them.

Stylistically, this has a similar degree of timeline fidelity to James Wan’s The Conjuring. In fact, I might even say that this goes even further in that direction as, as soon as the Universal logo shows up, you can tell that these people are having a lot of fun with the 60’s era setting. We even have artificial cigarette burns on the ‘film stock’, just to get those cinematic scholars drooling a bit (myself included, admittedly). However, more so than aesthetically staying true to this 60’s-era spirit, the writing manages to encompass then-contemporary mindsets in the characters. Namely, the sort of free-spirited and liberating air that most associate with the decade, up to and including a nice portrayal of the sexual politics of the time, portrayed primarily by Lina and in a very funny scene with Lina's boyfriend and Alice. What makes this adherence to the time even more of a success is how it manages not to clash with the bursts of revisionist clarity that the characters will frequently get.

Holy hell, I wish more movies still had this approach to filming horror. Specifically, the act of actually showing it rather than just letting sudden stabs from the soundtrack do the supposed thrilling for them. This film isn’t in any massive rush to get to the scarier scenes, but unlike the original which felt like the writers were at the eleventh hour when it came to writing those scenes, Flanagan lets the atmosphere build and relies on old-school staples of the genre like letting the unseen do the scares and focusing on creepy children. On the latter point, Lulu Wilson is fantastic in this movie, providing some of the unnerving and mouth-hung-open terrifying moments of the year. The big selling point here, along with the genuine thrills and the incredibly smart way that the characters and the film itself weave through them, is that it follows the pre-Eli Roth method of characterisation; in that we actively want to watch them and watch them succeed.

All this talk about connecting with the 60’s, and the film this most reminds me of the original Poltergeist film from the 80’s, specifically the family dynamics. They all have genuine love and caring for each other, and the way the supernatural shakes them up (including one of the few instances of explaining where the spirit came from that not only works, but works brilliantly) makes for great elation and devastation in equal measure. It even manages to transcend the prequel curse of knowing how these characters ultimately end up, since the dignity and pathos given to them still make the events hit hard on the audience. Whether it's possession, death, loss of sanity or all of the above, you care about the people that they are happening to here.

All in all, this is one of my new all-time favourite horror films, no two ways about it. I really wish I watched this on Halloween because this is a perfect Halloween film: Fun, smart and terrifying cinema. I haven’t had this much fun watching a horror film in a long time, even considering the high quality this year has given us, and I get the feeling that this is going to turn into a new yearly tradition for me. But more than its accomplishments on its own, this single film makes more saving throws than any other film I’ve sat through: Michael Bay, the Ouija film series, modern horror films as a whole; this film managed to redeem and give credence to them all.

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