I was not a fan of the original OUIJA, which I found to be predictable in plot and pedestrian in execution. Its prequel, however, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, is (almost) the exact opposite. Set in 1967, it reveals what happened in that spooky craftsman cottage when Aunt Lina (Annalise Basso) was just a high-school sophomore suffering the trauma of forbidden love with a senior (Parker Mack), the recent death of her father, and the financial straits that death has left her in with her mother, Alice (Elizabeth Reaser), and nine-year-old sister, Doris (Lulu WIlson). Where the first was a rote recitation of horror tropes, this one plays on hopes and fears about our fragile place in the universe with a nimble precision and a prescient acuity.
Mom is barely scraping by using her family’s tradition of holding séances to comfort the bereaved. She’s a fake, but not a cynical one. Her mission, aside from putting food on the table and keeping the girls in Catholic school, is to offer genuine comfort to the grieving, even if it is by means of elaborate mechanisms hidden in her antique sideboard and recruiting her daughters to add the correct atmosphere. It’s not going well. At least not until Lina suggests adding the eponymous board to the show. Almost at once, disaster is snatched from the jaws of eviction, with Doris proving to be the true medium in the family, telling secrets she couldn’t possibly know without the help of spirits.
We are, of course, told the rules of OUIJA almost as soon as the board makes its first appearance in the film, and, just as quickly, two of the rules are broken. Those would be the ones about playing alone and about always saying goodbye. With the skepticism of unbeliever willing to be convinced, Alice consults the board alone trying to contact her late husband, and leaves in a huff when he fails to answer. Lina, in her first try with the board isn’t alone, but her subsequent logical explanations for what is happening as the planchette seems to move on its own serves as the tart retort to all this will later transpire, including that moment when the planchette Alice has left on the board after her solo consultation almost instantly moves on its own in response to the question she had asked.
The film takes time to fully develop its characters, allowing us to make an emotional investment in what happens next, particularly when Doris, an awkward child with a pert blond flip, becomes the object of bullying at school. Her transformation from baleful victim to assured medium is as invigorating as the family’s rescue from financial ruin. Of course, this is all too good to be true, and a further element intrudes, causing a rift between Lena and her mother as the former sees something sinister where the latter is grateful for the unexpected gifts Doris’ powers have brought the family. A situation made all the more poignant when headmaster Father Tom (Henry Thomas) goes from gently chiding Lena about the necessity of keeping adolescent boys in line to becoming perhaps too personally involved in Alice’s life.
It’s all done with a wonderful sense of understated eeriness that grows as the story turns darker, leading to a respectful shout-out to a scene from THE EXORCIST. It have been translated to daylight but it still carries the proper ominous foreshadowing that things are about to get very creepy. Wilson’s performance is the key to that. A cherubic little girl whose smile takes on all manner of meanings as the story progresses until a quiet chat with Lena’s boyfriend turns blood-chilling as much for her childlike sincerity as for the grisly content she brings to it. It’s also why we keep hoping against hope that everything will be alright, an element that makes the horrors even more wrenching, even though, for the most part, they are only suggest to us, with very little it the way of the clichéd jump-and-scare jolts. Hence, when they do occur, they have the intended impact.
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is the perfect Halloween treat. Striking as it does at the illusion of innocence and folly of good intentions both on this plane of existence and the next, its uncanny evocation of evil is as unsettling as it is merely scary.