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It's fair to say that when plans were announced to turn the Hasbro board game Oujia into a horror movie, a collective sigh rose up from the internet at large. However, as a girl who well knows the power this cardboard and plastic contraption holds at slumber parties--thanks to its promise of a link to worlds beyond our own--I had a cautious optimism that this board game movie would get it right. For the first 10 minutes of Universal Pictures' Ouija, it does. Then the opening title card hits, and everything goes to hell.

The screenplay by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White follows a group of six friends whose lives are shattered when one of their rank unexpectedly kills herself. Desperately wanting the answer to why, they use the spirit board found in her room. Soon, they are tormented by the very spirit that led to their friend's bitter end. It's not a bad premise, but White--who also directs--executed it atrociously.

Ouija commits a wide variety of horror movie sins. First off, its group of friends is perfunctory. They are a collection of teens pretty enough to star on a WB series, but barely distinctive as archetypes, let alone characters in their own right. You have the best friend with the big sad eyes (Olivia Cooke), the boyfriend (Daren Kagasoff), the other boyfriend (Douglas Smith), the waitress one (Bianca A. Santos), and the younger sister (Ana Coto) who we know is "bad" because she has skulls on all her junior wear! These characters are so underdeveloped that it's impossible to feel invested when their lives are threatened by a ghost that they initially believe is the dearly departed Debbie (Shelley Hennig). They believe this because they are absolute idiots. When the board spells "Hi friend," Debbie's bestie Laine regards this as proof of ID, as if "friend" was their special pet name for each other instead of a painfully generic greeting. From here, these characters being threadbare takes a back seat to them being literally too dumb to live.

Yes, it's an excepted trope that people in horror movies make bad decisions. They read from the clearly cursed book. They dance on graves. They run up the stairs instead of out of the clearly haunted house. They play with a Ouija board even after ghosts attack them. But these horror movie morons take it to a whole new level, going to a home they know is haunted--always at night. Digging through its hidden rooms to find out who lived there in the past, before Googleing it--an action that doesn’t risk run-ins with poltergeists. And generally going to find help in all the wrong places.

Their stupidity becomes so outlandish that it not only kills audience empathy and snuffs out suspension of disbelief, it had me actively rooting for these dummies to die. Or the movie to just end. Whichever. But wouldn't you know? Even these inevitable death scenes are let downs, offering little that is innovative or even logical.

It's not all bad. Ouija contains some genuinely good scares. One of them takes place when Laine creeps into the attic of her old friend's home, a setting ripe for tension and frights. But after some solid spookiness, White abruptly cuts away to Laine safe in a warmly lit room, wasting what was one of his best scenes outside of the opening.

So the opening: It begins where you might expect, two tween girls huddled over a Ouija board, treating it with reverence and reluctance. The promise of seeing ghosts feels so real as little Laine picks up the product placement planchet to peer through its window to the world of the dead. This slumber party setting is so rich with possibility. Here the joy of being scared is coupled with the pressure to fit in, and the shadows could hide and kind of horror just steps away. But White and Snowden's script bolts from this setting, and leaps to teen girls, pretty and seemingly perfect. Yet something haunts Debbie, who won't let Laine come in to visit. She's burning her battered old Ouija board, and seems spooked about it. No one's home with her, and yet she's not alone. There was so much promise in this opening that climaxes in Debbie's grisly demise. But then White and Snowden chucked all this momentum in favor of a lackluster teen scream pic.

I believe a satisfyingly scary movie could be made from a Ouija board's inspiration. But this one isn't it.
3 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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