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It has been one hell of a year for horror. While fans of the genre have come to expect maybe one or two legitimately scary, intelligent, and entertaining titles from each 12 month stretch, 2016 has proven to be a treasure trove of freaky riches, with impressive titles including The Witch, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Don't Breathe, and more. It's hard to explain why this is happening, but it seems that a rising tide lifts all boats -- as we're now even getting great sequels to critically-reviled originals... as audiences who see Mike Flanagan's Ouija: Origin of Evil will soon discover.
A prequel that takes place back in 1967 (allowing it to be in the same continuity, but also completely different story), the film centers on Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two young daughters, Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). Taking on her family's profession, Alice is a medium who claims to be able to talk to the dead, though the truth is that she is a well-meaning con artist who employs various tricks to try and give her client's closure. She isn't really a believer of ghosts and spirits, but feels like she is helping people deal with important issues (while, of course, making a few bucks). This lack of faith is tested, however, after Paulina plays with a Ouija Board at a friend's house, and Alice realizes it might be a cool thing to add to her act.
Strapping the board to her specially-designed table and wearing magnets on her knees, Alice finds success with the new toy -- but it's really Doris who winds up opening its true potential. The little girl not only starts actually being able to communicate with the dead thanks to the Ouija Board, but even sees figures while peering through the glass in the planchette. This seems at first to be a miracle that could help the struggling Zander family... but this being a horror movie, things don't stay happy for long, and soon the mother and two daughters find their home beset by a sinister specter who wants to do some serious damage.
It's certainly unfortunate that Ouija: Origin of Evil plays with elements that have become full-blown tropes within the paranormal horror subgenre -- including the creepy kid who can talk with the dead in addition to the priest (Henry Thomas) who provides guidance -- but Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard not only legitimize these elements in context, but also add enough new to the mix to help balance it out. A big part of this is the fact that the Zander family already has a connection to the spirit world long before the haunting business starts, allowing the film to avoid many of the exhausted second act story beats of similar films, including the "What exactly is going on?" and "Should we leave the house?" questions. Admittedly it doesn't entirely stay off the beaten path for the full 99 minute runtime, as the story does eventually lead to the familiar "demon showdown" in the third act, but there are plenty of interesting detours that prevent it from feeling rote.
Ultimately, the script for Ouija: Origin of Evil is serviceable and has a good story to tell -- but it's Mike Flanagan's artistic approach to the film that actually winds up making it quite special. The writer/director clearly wears his passion for mid-20th century horror on his sleeve, and with the story taking place in the late 1960s, he goes full bore in expressing that love in the film. It begins from frame one, as the movie opens with the classic Universal Pictures logo from the era, but the aesthetic is literally present in every frame from that point forward - from its classic title cards, to use of split focus diopters, to dust on the print, to cigarette burns that appear in the top right corner before "reel changes." More than just making the movie stand out within the field of ubiquitous paranormal horror flicks, the style weirdly manages to add a strange sense of cinematic authenticity to the period story and adds a particular atmosphere that enhances everything from the characters to the scares.
Mike Flanagan has spent the last few years building up an impressive reputation within the horror genre -- but between Ouija: Origin of Evil and his other 2016 film, Hush, now is definitely the time for the filmmaker to start getting the mainstream recognition that he deserves. You may feel compelled to dismiss this new movie out of hand just because of its connection to its predecessor, but that would be a mistake, as you'll be missing out on one of the biggest cinematic surprises of the year.