The Box Office:
I assume you all know what the "Tomb Raider Trap" is by now. For newbies, that's the thing where a bad film becomes a hit based on pre-release interest, hype, and/or brand loyalty. And then, because that movie was a hit, we get a sequel which inexplicably turns out to be a better movie. But even though the filmmakers got it right on the second try, moviegoers find themselves once bitten, twice shy.
Ouija wasn't the worst theatrical horror movie ever made, but it was mostly a hit due to its brand (that Hasbro board game) and its strategic Halloween season release date during a year otherwise bereft of mainstream horror options. The $5 million Universal/Comcast Corp. release opened with $19m the weekend before Halloween and legged it to $50m domestic and $103m worldwide. So yeah, that's sequel money. Or in this case, prequel money.
So two years later we've got Ouija 2: Origin of Evil, a would-be prequel set in 1967 and directed by newbie horror wunderkind Mike Flanagan. The picture, penned by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, may yet fall victim to this trap. As you'll note if you've read the headline, this prequel is a vastly superior picture to the mostly forgettable original. But will audiences bite twice, especially in an insanely crowded weekend?
Of course, with a budget of just $9 million, Origin of Evil can afford to make a lot less than the first one and still be a hit. That's the Blumhouse model for you. And, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, that's two Platinum Dunes sequel/prequels in 2016 that were far superior to the 2014 predecessors.
Ouija 2: Origin of Evil is the second time this year that we've seen a great sequel/prequel spawn from a mediocre/lousy original, following that inexplicably "pretty darn good" Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel. Yes, there is a loose enough connection to the 2014 "young kids shouldn't play with haunted board games" chiller, but this is a thoughtful and moving family drama that stands on its own as a terrific horror movie.
Director Mike Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari have crafted a beautiful piece of theatrical horror. Flanagan and Jeff Howard's nuanced screenplay puts the emphasis on character and drama over scares, which makes the genre tropes all the more impactful. The film is incredibly suspenseful by virtue of its patience and restraint.
This grim tale, about a widowed mother and her two daughters struggling to get by after the death of their patriarch, offers no villains and exudes only empathy for its would-be victims. The suspense and horror come from the fact that we like these people and don't want anything bad to happen to them.
We open on a staged séance performed by Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) and her daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). Alice's mother allegedly "had the gift," but the talent seems to have skipped a generation which leaves the recently bereaved family faking it to support themselves. One thing leads to another, and the family ends up with an Ouija board, which young Doris ends up using to apparently contact her father's spirit.
Needless to say, that turns out to be a not-so-positive development. You don't need to know any more plot than that.
The picture focuses on its core family unit and takes stock in its defeats (a foreclosure threat) and triumphs (Paulina's first kiss with a perfectly nice neighborhood boy) with the supernatural element remaining on the fringes for as long as possible. The relatively small cast (Parker Mack is the would-be boyfriend, and Henry Thomas is a sympathetic teacher/priest who is coping with his own loss) turns in wonderful performances. The filmmaking and acting elevate this material beyond grindhouse fare.
Yes, there are jump scares, yes there are horrific reveals, and yes the proverbial sh** does hit the proverbial fan. But what stands out are the personal details. I adored Alice's palm reading of her daughter's would-be beau. I love how the big third act reveal comes about through a series of whip-smart and intense dialogue-driven moments. I love that I hated when bad things eventually happened to people who darn well didn't deserve it.
Ouija 2: Origin of Evil gets the order just right, offering a straightforward drama and treating the supernatural peril as just the latest problem for a given set of protagonists. The film takes its time establishing the stakes and building sympathy for the would-be victims. Thus we are engaged by the story itself even while dreading the eventual otherworldly showdown.
Reaser ably anchors this one with game support from Basso (who shined as the "young" Karen Gillan in the terrific Oculus), Wilson, and the like. This is splendid genre entertainment, even absent much in the way of subtext. It's another horror winner from the guy who has already given us Oculus and Hush in just a few short years. Maybe we'll eventually be able to see Relativity's much-delayed Before I Wake. In the meantime, I eagerly look forward to whatever Flanagan has up his sleeve.
Oh, and if this is going to be the result of hiring up-and-coming horror directors to tackle unasked-for sequels to surprise hit originals, then I'm totally onboard for David Sandberg's Annabelle 2.