I “missed” (if that is the right word) the 2014 film “Ouija,” based on the pretend-satanic board game beloved by imaginative adolescents since time immemorial. It got almost nothing but bad reviews, and I’ll take my colleagues at their collective word. So the prequel, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” — from “Oculus” and “Hush” director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard — is a pleasant, creepy surprise, a stylish funhouse that, like Flanagan’s other films, finds new life in old scenarios.
The setting is 1967 Los Angeles, where young widow Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) runs a fake medium business out of her home (her very old, very large home, the sort of home that probably has a tragic history). Aided by her daughters, teenage Lina (Annalise Basso) and 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson), Alice sweetly bilks gullible sad people out of their money by pretending to contact their dead loved ones, but she believes she’s ultimately doing good by helping them find closure. Lina suggests introducing a Ouija board into the act, maybe use some magnets to move the planchette around and really give customers a thrill. Imagine everyone’s surprise when little Doris exhibits prodigy-level Ouija use and actually summons spirits — including, possibly, her own father (played in flashbacks by Michael Weaver).
Well! Now business is REALLY booming! There are downsides, though. Lina moves from skepticism to fear when she sees how Doris becomes a channel for these spirits; Doris, for her part, enjoys communing with her new “friends” and is happy to do their bidding. Father Tom (Henry Thomas), the top priest at the girls’ Catholic school, is concerned for a number of reasons, not all of them theological. Alice is flabbergasted to be in contact with her dead husband, convinced of the spirits’ authenticity and unaware of the effect they’re having on Doris.
Flanagan, an inventive filmmaker with a sharp eye (he’s also the movies’s editor), revels in the variety of opportunities afforded by the premise: haunted house, creepy kids, demonic possession, malevolent spirits — all the old standbys. He uses atmospheric music (by The Newton Brothers) and excellent sound design (by Trevor Gates) to amplify tension, avoids cheap jump scares, and rewards attentive viewing with blink-and-you-miss-them glimpses of lurking spirits. The dialogue is above-average, including a ghastly monologue from adorable li’l Doris about what it’s like to be strangled.
Flanagan is also committed to the retro vibe, in ways both in obvious (the old-style Universal logo and title card) and not-so-obvious: burn marks where the reel changes would be, reliance on the type of filmmaking equipment and techniques that were in use 45 years ago, and a shunning of gore, sex, and nastiness. He wants to scare and delight us, not shock or nauseate us. For a lot of filmmakers, being hired to make a prequel to a minor horror hit would be an excuse to phone it in. Flanagan took the challenge and came up with something more meticulously spooky than almost every other horror film this year.
(Note: Though it is a prequel, “Origin of Evil” works just fine as a standalone story. If you saw “Ouija,” you’ll see the connections. If you didn’t, don’t worry about it. Worry about the evil spirits that are going to follow you home.)
B+ (1 hr., 39 min.; )