Have there ever been entertainment-media product tie-ins like the Ouija movies? The shriekingly enjoyable Ouija: Origin of Evil, like its less successful 2014 predecessor Ouija, lays out as its best case that the toy it's advertising will destroy your life, maybe kill your family and damn your very soul. Thirty years ago, that idiot Geraldo Rivera terrified America into believing that Dungeons & Dragons was feeding young people to Satan. Now, in a series of un-gory but surprisingly grim junior horror films, Hasbro is promising it. Still, I'll take this treatment of our legacy-brand kids' stuff over Pixar's. It's probably healthy to stop worrying that we don't love our toys enough and start fearing that all this mass-produced junk might be sending us — perhaps figuratively — to hell.
The new Ouija, set 50 years before whatever happened in the previous Ouija, summons up in an early scene the shivery pleasure of actual Ouija. Unsupervised teens — probably drunk and stoned, though this PG-13 production shies from acknowledging it — dim the lights, lay fingers on the pointing “planchette” and enlist the spirit realm to aid in flirting. Slowly, as everyone giggles and pretends they're not moving it themselves, that pointer scoots across the board to spell out the answers to their questions one letter at a time. And that response suggests the same collective play-along creepiness of Ouija itself.
It's an effective light-horror sequence, a winning ad and an amusing study of teen behavior. Even the jump scare it builds to is a squirrelly, real-world laugh. I only wish the scene played longer and got weirder, like the ones in pulpy horror novels such as Alexandra Sokoloff's The Harrowing. But the exuberant crowd of young people I saw this with read the planchette's responses out loud, in unison, like the Wheel of Fortune audience.
That's a rare level of engagement from teen viewers with a studio time-killer, and it's further evidence that horror films encourage a less passive viewership than, say, summer's superhero dustups. (They're also more honest about violence: It's horrific, even in a bloodless entry like this.) Like The Conjuring and the many immersive spook-house thrillers inspired by it, Origin of Evil demands and rewards attentiveness, inviting scrutiny of its frames, study of its negative space.
Director/co-writer/editor Mike Flanagan (Hush, Oculus) isn't innovating here — the story-specific horror imagery (hangings; sewn-up doll mouths) is recycled from Ouija, which wasn't innovating, either. But he's a skilled showman adept at staging and pacing scares so that their jolts amuse rather than upset. Flanagan understands the thrill of being the first in a crowd to spot the movement in the shadows behind a movie character.
The film moves too quickly for us to linger on any single scare scene. It's got a plot to get to and an evil to origin-ize. This installment's heroines — a mom who runs a séance scam (Elizabeth Reaser) and her boy-curious teen daughter (Annalise Basso) — face all the usual signs of ghosts and demons after younger daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson) contacts a malevolent entity via the family. The moppet believes she's contacted her dead father; even kiddo horror like this, a fright flick with training wheels, foregrounds trauma, but not as baldly as vintage Disney.
Doris has actually reached something wicked, of course, but the specifics — spirits rooted in her home's terrible past — are just an excuse for the creep-out. Flanagan keeps his audience gently unsettled with off-kilter compositions, occasional complex spins of the camera and some tricky in-scene split-screen effects. There's rarely a clear distinction between the setup scenes and what fans might call the good parts. As his own editor, Flanagan works in some cine in-jokes, especially about this period piece's vintage. Origin of Evil is set in 1967, and like the movies of that pre-digital era it flashes a black reel-change cue in the upper right hand corner every 20 minutes or so before cutting to a short, juddering shot of no real consequence and then at last settling down into a new reel's crisp first scene.
Such self-awareness can be deadly to a genre exercise. But Origin of Evil has been shrewdly crafted to be shaken off, to not be relentless, to generate a steady candied eeriness that never overwhelms. Dig the crochet vest that Doris sports, the pink pussy-collared dress Reaser's character slinks about in on a not-date with a hunky priest (Henry Thomas), the 45s of forgotten pop hits, the low-tech under-the-table mechanics of the family's séance business.
Then, in the end, be surprised by the fact that movie basements look now as they looked then — and by the very 2016 assault of the final revelations and acts of violence. Origin of Evil is mostly good, scary fun until it gets darker than parents might hope. It has to if its creators want kids not to laugh it out of theaters. As horror, those final moments are familiar but well staged and sharply edited, if a little rushed. But as an ad for all the delicious evil that Hasbro might let you unleash? It works.