Review: ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ (Second Time’s the Charm)

What do you do when your first film makes money in spite of all its flaws? Would you believe a sequel that retroactively fixes everything broken in the first one?

Los Angeles, 1967. Widow Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is doing the best she can keeping her mortgage and bills paid performing mock séances for cash-holding believers. Her daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) assist in the convincing, but in spite of willing customers, the money isn’t enough. Slipping out without permission to spend the evening with friends, Lina is introduced to a Ouija board; after getting caught being out, Lina mentions using the talking board to her mother to improve the séance experience. Alice tries to figure out a way to manipulate the board, but it turns out that Doris can use Ouija for real — without even touching it — but is that what’s really going on? Only the family priest (Henry Thomas) knows for sure…

While the original Ouija outing in 2014 fell flat, writer/director Mike Flanagan ran with the financial success of the first film and reimagined the characters’ origins (hence the title) for the sequel setting up a true period piece. The effect is similar to what “American Horror Story” was able to pull off after their first present-day season, long before it was common knowledge that the seasons were linked in the same world. It was a bold choice and an additional financial burden for the production, but would the film and the entire franchise benefit from the revelations of a retroactive origin story?

It has happened before that an immediate sequel can outshine a first film, but it’s a rare thing when a part two not only tells a good story but practically apologizes for the poorer cousin that preceded it. From opening scene to denouement, Origin of Evil fixes the flaws and reigns in the story to focus on the house and family, leaving the teen-slaying in the dust and incorporating a nod toward The Exorcist without feeling like theft (from a film that’s been ripped off too many times already). The writing, the cast, and the story all felt less like an endorsement of the Ouija board game and more like a warning of how it shouldn’t be used — a perfect advertisement that feels like anything but.

Flanagan already has positive credits for writing and directing the above-average Oculus and more recently Gerald’s Game for Netflix, so it isn’t surprising him showing a talent for adaptation in story. The new story is so good, in fact, that you almost forget everything wrong with the original film and that it eventually will bookend into it — in the most wonderful way. Annalise Basso has plenty of pedigree in the horror genre, between “True Blood” as Jessica’s younger sister to the younger girl in the aforementioned Oculus and will also appear in the upcoming Slenderman. Lulu Wilson has her own thing going with Annabelle: Creation while everyone know Henry Thomas from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. When you’re using all the best ingredients, they can’t help but make the cook look good.

There are already productions trying to capitalize on the “Ouija” name to varying success and cash in on the spirit board idea, but as Hasbro already knows, an idea isn’t enough without a story (Battleship, anyone?) There’ll likely be a third film if this one makes enough and builds enough interest, so here’s hoping Flanagan will be a part of whatever they choose to do next.

Ouija: Origin of Evil is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, terror, thematic elements, and creative use with a needle and thread.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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