In the past few years, it's become obvious that the horror genre can't really survive in the studio system. While it thrives in independent cinema, studios simply throw a bit of money at a bad script with a dull concept, add in a bunch of cheap thrills and let it make money. This is the kind of mentality that resulted in 'Ouija' (2014) - such a dreadfully dull film that it barely deserves mention - but it made just enough money for them to make a follow-up, even though no one wanted one. Sequels (or in this case, prequels) to horror films are almost always a bad idea, and when the bar is set as low as it is here, you’d be forgiven for expecting ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ to be another mess, especially with such an awful title. However...
The film is set in 1967 Los Angeles, and focuses on Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser, 'Young Adult', The Twilight' Saga) and her daughters Lina (Annalise Basso, 'Captain Fantastic') and Doris (Lulu Wilson, 'Deliver Us From Evil'). Alice pretends to be a medium who can speak to the dead to earn enough money to keep their house after her husband’s death, but when she purchases a new game called Ouija to add to her act, Doris finds an unexpected talent in actually being able to communicate with the other side. However, Lina begins to notice something shifting in her sister, and turning to the local priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas, the now grown-up Elliott from 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial'), they begin to discover that something far more horrific may be happening to Doris.
In perhaps one of the most shocking surprises of the year, ‘Origin of Evil’ follows up one of the most forgettable horror films ever made with one of the most original, accomplished and disturbing studio horror films in years. In fact, the turnaround is such a surprise that I found myself genuinely shocked as the credits rolled that the two films could possibly be from the same franchise.
This may have a lot to do with placing it in the hands of director Mike Flanagan ('Hush', 'Oculus'). Along with co-writer Jeff Howard, he takes the bare-bones, derivative mythology of the first film and weaves it into something far more sinister and horrific without dishonouring what came before it. ‘Ouija’ doesn’t deserve that level of respect, but ‘Origin’ takes the time to develop its ideas and mechanisms, and throw them into a period context. Using influences of 70s horror cinema isn’t new - James Wan having created diabolical magic by doing so in ‘The Conjuring’ (2013) - but in many ways, what Flanagan does with ‘Origin’ is a more complete pastiche, to the point where you could convince yourself the film is from 1976. The image is grainy and there are intentional warps in the image and sound to make it seem vintage, but these are aesthetic garnishes to the careful understanding of rhythm, plot and shock that make that period of horror cinema still so potent. There are wonderful flashes of black humour in the film, but rather than laughing at the film, which is often what happens with horror these days, ‘Origin’ invites the audience to laugh with it, getting them on side before whacking them with its scares. It’s a gorgeous-looking film, with wonderfully stylised and unexpectedly sumptuous cinematography from Michael Fimognari and careful editing from Flanagan that perfectly calibrates the build to every frightening moment.
‘Origin’ is genuinely unnerving, with some truly disturbing images that still send shivers down my spine when I think about them.
And this is where the film really succeeds - ‘Origin’ is genuinely unnerving, with some truly disturbing images that still send shivers down my spine when I think about them. None of the concepts are new (particularly as they're still playing with concepts from the first film), but the way Flanagan executes them is damn near-perfect, never going for the cheap scares but stuff pulled from your nightmares. It also pushes as far as it can within the restrictions of its U.S. PG-13 rating (it's been rated M here in Australia), working with simplicity and specificity rather than excess. When the film goes for it, it really goes for it, but because it understands the rhythm and style of that period of horror history, the more audacious plot points actually work. I would go so far as to say that ‘Origin’ is an even more impressive callback to 70s studio horror cinema than ‘The Conjuring’ was, because it maintains its furious intentions right through to the last frame.
Horror is often all style at the cost of its performances, but this film’s success really rests on the strength of its cast. The central five performances, which also includes Parker Mack as Lina’s potential boyfriend Mikey, are uniformly excellent and completely committed to the emotional stakes and stylistic integrity of the film. It also helps that the screenplay is great, almost devoid of the clunky dialogue and exposition we expect. The standout though is Lulu Wilson, who attacks Doris’ descent from innocent girl to maniacal demon with delicious relish. The detail in her performance is extraordinary, and with a flick of her eyes or a move of her mouth, she has the film (and us) in the palm of her hands, making Doris ultimately one of the best villains we’ve seen in a horror film in so long.
It should have been a total mess, but Mike Flanagan has turned ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ from another forgettable sequel into one of the most striking studio horror films in years. The fact that it follows on from such a turgid film as ‘Ouija’ is an even greater surprise. This is old-school, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night stuff, wearing its debt to ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Omen’ proudly in its sleeve. You don’t have to have seen the first film to enjoy it, and those that have will be in for a great surprise. For this devoted horror fan, ‘Origin’ ticks all the right boxes and then sends them straight to hell with furious delight. This is definitely one of the great unexpected surprises of the year.