I still remember the summer of 2007. That was when Transformers came out to massive box office bank, and of course Hollywood responded with a rush of movie franchises based on toys and board games. Save only for the Transformers franchise itself — now going on its fifth goddamn movie — that really didn’t go very well.

G.I. Joe fizzled out after two movies. Battleship was a bona fide catastrophe. Jem and the Holograms and Max Steel were both embarrassments quickly swept under the rug. Proposed movies based on Monopoly, Candy Land, and View-Master never materialized. Though I suppose there’s also the ongoing and shaky TMNT rebooted franchise — we’ll see if that makes it to a third film.

Then there’s Ouija, a 2014 film based on the Ouija board game. As everyone collectively realized what a stupid idea that was and how patently awful the film looked, the movie was roundly panned by critics and only barely scraped up $100 million worldwide. But that was still a $103 million gross against a reported $5 million budget, so on with the franchise!

Ouija: Origin of Evil is a prequel to the original film, not that anyone would know or care. The trailer showed us a cookie-cutter horror film with crappy effects and a lame generic title, starring Elizabeth Reaser as a poor man’s Carla Gugino. And it’s still a prequel/reboot/whatever of a movie nobody cared about because we all knew what a terrible idea it was to begin with.

I was perfectly happy to write the film off, but then something fascinating happened: The reviews were good. Really good. Surprisingly good. The Tomatometer stands at 81 percent as of this writing. How is this possible? Let’s take a look.

Reaser plays Alice Zander, a psychic who helps her customers speak with their deceased loved ones. Of course it’s all a scam, carried out with the help of her two daughters (Lina and Doris, respectively played by Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson). Yet Alice sees the three of them as honest liars. They use showmanship to tell their customers what they want to hear, thereby granting closure and peace to those who’ve lost their loved ones.

It’s a subject near and dear to the ladies’ hearts, as Alice’s husband was recently killed in a car accident. And of course the three of them are in danger of losing their home if they can’t make divination pay the bills.

Then of course Alice brings in a Ouija board as part of the act and things go downhill from there. Especially when it’s discovered that Doris can really use the board to talk to spirits, actually doing what they’ve only been pretending to do until that point, thereby raking in more money. It’s a very simple story, but remember that this is a film based on the goddamn Ouija board. What more could anyone reasonably expect?

(Side note: The Ouija board is first introduced atop a stack of other popular and iconic board games. The way things in Hollywood are going right now, I honestly don’t know if this is awkward product placement or a half-assed attempt at building a shared cinematic continuity. Time will tell.)

Our victim pool includes two other characters worth mentioning. One of them is Father Tom (Henry Thomas), principal of the Catholic school where Doris and Lina go to. He’s pretty much our substitute exorcist, the character who has the best shot at confronting our malevolent spirits on a spiritual level. Yet because this character is the school principal, he has an established semi-father-figure relationship with the two girls that helps to move things along, giving him a motivation to get involved without any explanation needed. He’s also a character with a dead wife, such that he can bond with the core family over their differing methods of bereavement. And yes, while the filmmakers toy with the notion of him as a potential love interest for Alice, the fact that he’s ordained quickly eliminates that possibility.

Speaking of love interests, we also have Parker Mack in the role of Mikey. He’s a boy at school in a mutual crush with Lina, struggling to keep their hormonal impulses a secret from the disapproving adults around them. Mikey sadly falls into a bland sweet spot where he’s not sleazy enough to be unlikeable, he’s not nice enough to be likeable, and he’s not far enough in either direction to be interesting. Though he and Lina do have enough chemistry to sell the relationship, there’s nothing about the character as an individual to talk about.

Oh, and as long as we’re on the subject of Lina and her love life, it bears mentioning that she’s an actual Catholic schoolgirl (complete with uniform), there are a few scenes in which she’s haunted while sleeping, and her romance arc is a prominent subplot. Not that the film ever gets too explicitly pervy, but there’s a line that cannot be crossed when it comes to sexualizing teenagers (especially when they’re being played by actual teenagers and not twenty-somethings acting younger), and there were a few uncomfortable moments when I had to wonder if maybe the filmmakers weren’t as careful as they should’ve been.

All of that aside, let’s talk about Lina as a character. First of all, it’s interesting to note that she’s the resident skeptic of the film, yet she never comes off as stupid or short-sighted. After all, she grew up with a psychic mother and she knows the whole routine inside and out, so of course she knows it’s all fake. Yet she’s still clearly smart enough to know when something’s gone wrong and when to seek help, instead of keeping herself in denial until it’s too late.

Perhaps more importantly, Lina is your typical rebellious teenager, but never to an unsympathetic degree. She wants her independence and she wants to go be with friends — especially as a means of getting past her father’s death — but never in a way that causes grief for her mom or her sister. She’s got sass, and she’s got some growing up to do, but there’s never any doubt that her heart is in the right place. It’s not often we see a teenage girl so likeable and credibly delivered — especially in a horror film — so kudos are certainly due to Annalise Basso and the filmmakers.

(Side note: This is the same Annalise Basso who played a young Karen Gillian in Oculus. Which was directed and co-written by Mike Flanagan, who also made this film.)

Moving onto Doris, she spends most of the film as your typical possessed demon child. And Lulu Wilson certainly does a solid job looking and acting the part. But what’s interesting about the character is in how she starts out with the best of intentions. She wants to talk to her dad again. She wants to help her family through bankruptcy. Her mother’s occupation and her father’s death have made her a bully target, so she wants to make friends. Not that she ever whines about any of this stuff — in fact, she goes through it all with incredible grace for a girl her age. But if she has the chance to make herself useful and solve her problems by way of a magic board, she’s gonna do it. All of this is beautifully conveyed by Wilson and the filmmakers, such that the character is easy to like and compelling to watch from start to finish.

With that, we come to Alice. Reaser and the filmmakers do a fine job of portraying Alice as your typical struggling widowed mother, trying to keep strong and put on a happy face in spite of all the shit she has to work through. Then she finds a chance to reconnect with her husband, letting the girls talk with their father again, and make money in the bargain. This is all predictable stuff, even if it’s beautifully played. But then something exceptional happens.

Slowly but surely, the characters start to figure out that in spite of the Ouija board and Doris’ talks with actual ghosts, the act itself hasn’t changed all that much. Everyone is still only hearing the same platitudes about forgiveness, being in a better place, and so on. Alice and her daughters are still only telling people what they want to hear, so why risk playing with actual ghosts when they could do without just as easily?

What’s far more impressive is the possibility that the ghosts are stringing along Alice and her daughters through the exact same psychological trickery and emotional manipulation that Alice uses on her customers. So it is that even when the seance is being performed with actual messages coming from real ghosts, it still isn’t any more authentic. The psychic knows enough to know the real thing when she sees it, yet she’s as desperate as her customers to believe and ends up falling into her own trap. Fucking ingenious.

And so we come at last to the Ouija board, which is of course a character in itself. The film puts heavy emphasis on three rules, all of which come packaged with the game.

  1. Never play alone.
  2. Never play in a graveyard.
  3. Always say Goodbye at the end.

Naturally, all three of these rules are broken on a constant basis. The first one is broken through the characters’ own desperation and stupidity. The second one is broken through means that are wickedly clever, albeit implausible. But the third one is by far the most important.

Saying goodbye. Letting go. Closure and moving on are central themes of this movie, and the filmmakers were brilliant enough to develop such poignant and compelling themes from such a small detail of the game. Yet the point is so implicit that I can’t help wondering how much credit the filmmakers really deserve for that.

Likewise, there’s a throwaway line that comments on how the ghosts are working through Doris’ hands. Given how Ouija is all about ghosts controlling the board through the hands of the players, examining the whole possession concept through that angle was really quite inspired. Too bad the planchette (read: the pointer) moves independently most of the time, for the sake of more scares, so the angle isn’t as well-developed as it might have been.

The scares themselves, alas, are uneven. It doesn’t help that the score, the sound design, the lighting, and the visual effects are all so overdone that it kills the atmosphere. Really, the most effective scares are those in which the actors are allowed to work with what they’ve got and those behind the scenes just stay out of the way.

A loud jump scare involving some CGI monster? Annoying. Somebody’s eyes turn white and their jaw unhinges with rubbery CGI? Barely unnerving (though admittedly still better than what we saw in the trailer). Doris delivers a cheery monologue in a single unbroken take to describe what choking to death is like? CREEPY AS FUCK.

It’s a pattern with this movie that the setup is so much more interesting than the payoff. This is most frequently true with the moments that keep building up to a disappointing jump scare. But it’s also true of the moment when we finally learn what’s going on, exposing a mythology and backstory so much less compelling than what’s happening then and there. Last but not least, the film utterly fails to stick the landing because it has to serve as a prequel for a movie that nobody cares about.

Ouija: Origin of Evil is far better than it had any right to be. The characters are likeable and well-developed, there are some clever ideas and poignant themes on display, and it’s incredible how much mileage the filmmakers were able to get from their source material. The horror is hit-or-miss, but it’s nonetheless impressive how many genuinely disturbing moments were produced under the limitations of a PG-13 rating and the miniscule resources available.

Given the film’s reported budget of $9 million, it will most likely turn a profit. When it does, I hope it serves as proof that Mike Flanagan deserves more work, and not that Ouija is a franchise worth continuing. I’m not saying this is a bad movie, I’m saying it’s a fluke that it was halfway decent at all.

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