Once you get past the surprisingly pleasurable vintage appeal to Ouija: Origin of Evil, you’re left with a fairly routine, fairly dull little horror movie. Ah, but those vintage affectations are so very pleasurable. I appreciated the effort. Setting the story in 1967, writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus) wraps the movie in period detail. It’s like watching an odd Mad Men spin-off slowly sinking into haunting clichés. The costuming and set-design are midcentury on-point. The sound has a warm, soft, soothing vinyl quality. The pacing is soft; the image is quiet. The title cards have era-appropriate fonts. There are even some fake reel changes, perhaps the biggest shock of pleasure the film’s digital projection has to offer those of us who can remember the soft pop of the changeover, preceded by a fleeting black oval in the corner, accompanied by the faint scratches on the soundtrack and the little wobble on the cut. I realize this isn’t much, but it’s worth noting anyway.
The rest of the movie is standard modern horror elements that’ll be familiar to anyone who has seen better recent genre entries like The Conjurings, Insidious, The Possession, and so on and so forth. At least it’s much better than the worse, first attempt to turn Ouija boards into a horror series in 2014’s hacky, forgettable paranormal slasher. Origin of Evil has a frazzled single mother (Elizabeth Reaser) and two troubled girls (Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson) mourning their father, evil spirits, bad dreams, a kindly priest (Henry Thomas), a nice older boy hanging around (Parker Mack), whisperings, apparitions, a possessive ghost (Doug Jones), things going bump in the night, and a house with a Dark Secret Past. There’s not a single surprising moment in watching these components come together as they add up to pretty much what you’d expect. The younger girl whispers with her new ghost friends after using a Ouija board to attempt contact with her dead dad. Now the whole family is in danger. Would you have it any other way?
Because the movie is rooted in its period – with small talk about the space program, and records spinning, and the soothing glow of black and white TV turning eerie with the late night Indian-head test pattern – there’s often just enough to distract from the conventional machinations of the plot. And the cast plays it like it’s happening to them for the first time, Flanagan giving them enough room to play it straight. The mother is a phony psychic with fake séances for which her daughters hide behind doors and in cabinets to provide some surround sound scrapes and thumps. They begin the movie cynical, inured to the very real supernatural around them, expect for the youngest, who believes too much. This is the setup for an opening, the most vulnerable starting lines of communications with the dead, the others too unbelieving to catch on to the problem before it’s too late. Not even the priest can figure it out before that house is a lost cause.
Once it all goes wrong, the mother tells her oldest daughter to go wait outside. “Splitting up seems like the worst idea,” the teen spits back, the movie’s one winking acknowledgement that we’ve been here before. Even its eeriest moments have echoes of better horror movies past. The little girl serving as a conduit for an evil something-or-other screams by stretching her mouth open with her chin unnaturally low, creepy and reminiscent of the Scream mask. So on a level of story, scares, and invention, it’s pretty much a whiff. It’s the kind of mediocre that, though it’s never all that involving or scary, is at least relatively watchable throughout. Flanagan’s a good enough filmmaker to make the routine pleasing, even comforting in its old-fashioned good looks. But this sort of comfort-food throwback horror runs completely counter to a good movie, removing genuine shocks or the simmering discomfort that burrows under the skin. Think about how James Wan’s Conjurings use period affectations to enhance the mood instead of settling into cinematic comfort food. Ouija: Origin of Evil is just a nice looking and sounding nothing.