Written by: Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Directed by: Stiles White
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, and Daren Kagasoff
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Keep telling yourself it's just a game.
There’s a scene in Ouija where one of the characters attempts to defuse the tension before a séance by reminding her friends that they sell spirit boards in toy stores, which I suppose is the film's roundabout acknowledgement that it’s based on a Hasbro board game (which is actually confirmed during the end credits). They probably skipped opening credits because it’s not exactly the sort of thing you want to immediately announce about the supposedly demonic entity headlining your movie. Even with this in mind, it’s easy to see why this prospect isn’t as immediately ridiculous as one based off of Battleship*: Ouija boards are spooky shit and still hold sway over audiences. It’s one of our great, immediately recognizable superstitions (so of course it was fashioned into a corporate trademark), making it a natural launching point for a ghost story.
Unfortunately, that’s all the Ouija element is here: an embellishment and a glorified conversation starter for a very familiar film. Once the credits do start to roll, you won’t be surprised to see what is there, namely Jason Blum, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form, who have re-teamed for another exercise in economical genre filmmaking, and I mean that in every sense of the word: Ouija feels like so much muscle memory in its aggressive retreading and regurgitating of familiar plot points. It revolves around Laine (Olivia Cooke) and Debbie (Shelley Hennig), two life-long friends who once played with a spirit board as children. As high schoolers, they’ve dropped the habit—at least until Debbie stumbles upon an old board in her attic and begins acting erratically. When she’s found hanging from her ceiling after an apparent suicide, Isabelle is skeptical and begins to uncover the sordid history that unfolded in Debbie’s house decades earlier.
One can obviously reel off a litany of haunted house and ghost films that inspired Ouija, with some stretching all the way back to the past decade (The Ring becomes the most evident touchstone rather quickly). The only real surprise here is that it’s not found footage. Otherwise, it follows the formula that requires most of Laine’s friends to continually drop dead while she and her estranged sister (Ana Coto) Google their way out of this predicament. What they find recycles both timeworn plot points (familial—specifically, maternal—turmoil, a grisly domestic incident, etc.) and imagery (creepy kids, shrill, stringy-haired wraiths, etc.), which arrive with all the fanfare and excitement of someone checking off a list to appease expectations. Of course, horror has always had a bizarre relationship with expectations—in many ways, the genre’s cathartic potential relies on familiarity, but this is a case where audiences need to be jolted (and not just by the numerous jump scares, though I’ll admit there’s a pretty good one here).
Perhaps oddly enough, Ouija’s most unsettling moments come when it embraces its status as a “Dead Teenagers Movie,” a designation once used to scorn this genre that’s cast in sharp relief here. At times, Ouija is kind of a downer because it actually bothers to let its characters grieve for a little bit: the first act is especially somber, as Laine and her friends attempt to pick up the pieces. Once they realize they’ve conjured up some malicious forces, there’s an us-against-the-world vibe that faintly recalls the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street (in the vaguest sense possible—I don’t want to get carried away here). One of the better sequences echoes both that franchise and Final Destination, as the evil entity in question has a knack for staging elaborate death sequences that wind up looking like suicides or accidents, with the PG-13 rating not even serving as that much of a restraint (there’s an honest-to-god cringe worthy death sequence in Ouija).
The real problem is that there’s not enough of that sort of thing; admittedly, in most cases, I’d prefer atmosphere, dread, and story over body count, but these fleeting moments of carnage are just about the only thing that grabbed me about Ouija. Everything else is just so rote and limp, including a script that reveals it’s possible to have too much story. Despite riding on rails, the mechanical narrative still proves to be clunky as hell, as it relies on multiple exposition dumps from characters serving no larger purpose (from the moment a Latin grandmother is introduced, you’re just waiting for her to provide some useful information about how the girls can combat these spirits), plus a twist so telegraphed it might as well be crossing an ocean. Internal logic rests upon a set of rules that feel as though they’re being made up as the film goes along, not unlike an actual board game, I suppose—in this respect, I suppose it’s a faithful adaptation.
What’s frustrating about Ouija is its insistence on being hyper-competent. Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes have mastered this particular art of churning out slick-looking movies with decent casts (this one even boasts a cameo from Lin Shaye, who is getting a lot of mileage out of her kooky Insidious persona) that are content to clear the lowest possible bar. Would it hurt if this film weren’t obviously the conjuring of corporate synergy? It’s essentially a pitch that was immediately placed on autopilot, guided by hands with seemingly little interest in actually exploring its potential. You could easily excise the spirit board stuff from this movie and see Ouija for exactly what it is: a generic, anonymous horror movie cobbled together from the picked-over bones of its predecessors—at this point, something like Ouija can only regurgitate in dry heaves. Rent it!
*In a bizarro dimension, Battleship was a success and opened the door for the Hasbro Board Game Cinematic Universe, meaning our alternate universe Twitter feeds are clogged with bad jokes about Ouija featuring a post-credits sequence where it’s recruited by Sam Jackson or something. This is evidence that we aren’t in the darkest timeline.
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