Familiar Spirits Gives New Life to ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’

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CHICAGO – Like many of the creatures or villains it inspires, the horror genre has been slowly decaying for years now. In a time of reboots and tired sequels, 2016 has shown us glimpses of future promise by revisiting elements of the past. Flanagan continues this hot streak, one he helped create with “Hush” earlier this year, with the prequel “Ouija: Origin of Evil”.

Mike Flanagan is slowly becoming a welcome force in the horror genre. He grabbed our attention with the visual mindfuck that is “Oculus”. His visual style is an art form all its own. Done in an almost Del Toro style, Flanagan loves playing with form and tone in an unconventional way. He finds the beauty in the darkness, the humor in the horror, and the humanity in the inhumane. Aside from successfully recreating the aesthetic of the 60’s in “Ouija: Origin of Evil”, he also channels that decade’s filmmaking style by having a retro title card, film burning transitions and the use of mostly practical special effects over CGI.

Lulu Wilson in ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

The strongest characteristics of Flanagan’s films are how real and relatable the characters come across. He manipulates many horror tropes for his own purposes, but he never turns his characters into unbelievable caricatures that react to events with poor decision-making. One of my biggest complaints with horror films is when the characters act as if they have never seen a film where what is happening to them rings familiar. An example would be any contemporary film where people facing a group of cannibals that came back from the dead act as if they’ve never heard of a zombie before. Flanagan respects our intelligence (and his characters) enough not to waste our time with idiocies like those. His characters are fully aware of the situations they are in and react like any one of us would in the situation.

The problem with continuing inside of a pre-existing film franchise is that you’re bound by their mythology and series of events. “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a prequel to the hauntingly bad 2014 film “Ouija”. Because of this, Flanagan’s film has to adhere to the established back story in the first film. Lucky for him, the previous film’s backstory was so appallingly undeveloped and unexplored that he was able to chart a course going through whatever routes he wants, with only the final destination being a fixed point. That is where the film’s biggest shortcoming comes into play, but even then it feels like the sins of the parent are haunting its child. The ending of the film comes off as forced because that was the only part that was out of Flanagan’s creative control. It was an unavoidable part of this film, and even though it feels rushed and inconsistent with the rest of the film, you never blame Flanagan for it.

Flanagan uses tropes and elements from the time period to create a story that feels nostalgic, but still fresh. Being reminded of what once made the genre such a culturally insidious and dream-invasive force has become a necessity, and one that this year has delivered on more than ever. “Ouija: Origin of Evil” joins the ranks of 2016’s “The Conjuring 2” and “Don’t Breathe” as they each use visual elements and multifaceted storytelling to revive a decaying genre. Flanagan takes the typical story of children and possession, and adds another layer to the mythology. To make up for the unavoidable familiarity in the story, he makes sure to offer us what few horror films give to us in recompense: fully developed characters.

Playing the Game in ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

As is evident by Flanagan’s filmography, strong female characters are important to him. Too long have females been oversexualized or tortured for male pleasure in horror films. All of his characters aren’t purely written to be victims, but they are set up to be fighters. “Ouija: Origin of Evil” creates well-constructed female characters not only trying to survive in a male dominated society, but also in a world full of horrors. Instead of just exploring the bonds of female friendship, we also get to experience the bonds of motherhood and sisterhood, and how powerful they truly are. That made the performances of Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, and especially Lulu Wilson, so poignant. There is so much care in developing each character that even the creatures feel multi-dimensional, especially since they are played by the talented Doug Jones.

The ghosts of our past are always around us. Sometimes they are used to haunt us. Other times they are used to inspire. Mike Flanagan uses his Ouija board to channel the spirits into a fun film that will satisfy your Halloween cravings and leave you wanting more.

“Ouija: Origin of Evil” opened everywhere on October 21st. Featuring Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack and Doug Jones. Screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Rated “PG-13”

Jon Espino, film and video game critic, HollywoodChicago.com

Film & Video Game Critic

© 2016 Jon Espino, HollywoodChicago.com

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