The most predominant of all of humanity's fears is a fear of the unknown, and there is no greater unknown than what, if anything, happens after death. It's a topic that has captivated humans since the dawn of their consciousness. In fact, it could be argued that all major religions and belief systems were started as a way of exploring and answering such massive questions, allowing people to find comfort and consolation through faith. As scientific progress began to rapidly grow in the late 19th century, people began to look other places than religion for answers about the great beyond, and spiritualism was born. While many ancient customs, rituals, and notions of things like witchcraft seem silly to us in 2016, elements of spiritualism continue to fascinate. It's why people still go in droves on "haunted tours" in New Orleans, visit "haunted" hotels in Colorado, and why so many psychics, tarot card readers, and mediums ply their trade in New York City to this day. While humanity's fascination with ghosts and the afterlife has always been present, many elements of the spiritualist era solidified popular concepts of contacting and questioning the dead, and next to a tarot deck the biggest pop cultureculmination of this idea was the Ouija board, introduced in 1890. The "automatic writing" board was such a success that the rights were picked up by Parker Brothers in 1966, who (after becoming Hasbro) have put copies for sale in every toy store since. The Ouija board's continuing popularity largely stems from the general ongoing curiosity about the spiritual world (as well as the common desire to scare others at parties), but a portion can likely be traced to a desire to talk to people after they've moved on, be they celebrities or loved ones. In the latter case there's a fair amount of danger involved (of an emotional sort, if not spiritual), and can cause would be spirit communicators to believe what they want to hear...and what they don't.
This is the premise of the new film Ouija: Origin Of Evil, a prequel to the 2014 "technically a hit even if nobody remembers it" movie Ouija. That film (and the resulting franchise) was made seemingly for no greater reason then to exploit another IP license held by Hasbro, as had been done with Transformers (successfully) and Battleship (less successfully). Ouija boards as a concept fall somewhere between those two, as the "contacting the dead" aspect of the game lends itself to the popular trends in mainstream horror today. The main issue with the first Ouija is that beyond exploiting the property, it's a film without a direction. The cast seem doped up on Ambien, the characters are just barely stock, the kills are uniformly off screen (in grand PG-13 tradition), and the ghost/demon killer has ill-defined powers, seemingly possessing its victims who then off themselves, while still somehow abiding by the "rules" of the Ouija board. Ouija has two major things going for it: an excellent visual concept for the possessed victims, and a compelling backstory, concerning the prior inhabitants of the house where the teens find the Ouija board, and what caused one particular inhabitant to turn evil. It's this story that Origin Of Evil explores and expands, in spectacularly successful fashion.
Origin follows the saga of the Zander family, living in mid-60's Los Angeles. Matriarch Alice (Elizabeth Reaser), after the death of her husband, runs a modestly successful seance business, enlisting her daughters, teen Lina (Annalise Basso) and young Doris (Lulu Wilson) to help scam customers into believing their loved ones are at peace. Alice believes that bringing people closure, despite it all being a hoax, makes their work philanthropic, in part because she so desperately wishes to find reconciliation with her deceased husband herself. When Lina suggests using a Ouija board as a new prop for the act, the family are shocked to find that there is an actual spiritual presence in the house that the board has unlocked, and that it has a special connection to Doris, speaking through her to communicate. Soon, the act becomes real, and the more the family use the board the more Doris begins to change in unsettling ways. When the strange events escalate, the girls' principal and priest, Father Tom (Henry Thomas) discovers the history of the spirits possessing Doris and calls for an exorcism, but by that time it may be too late.
Origin Of Evil is one of the rare cases of a sequel being a better film than the original by leaps and bounds, and that is all due to director/co-writer/editor Mike Flanagan. Making a prequel to a mostly forgotten, mildly successful teen horror movie all but screams "lazy work-for-hire job", but Flanagan brings his A-game, taking the material and bringing to it a love of the characters, genre, and period. Origin is a slow burn, structured not like the pseudo-slasher that the original was, but rather as a late 60's/70's horror drama, in the tradition of Rosemary's Baby or The Legend of Hell House. This allows Flanagan to not only establish but really explore the characters, and I found myself sitting in the theater with my jaw dropped as I watched a sweet scene involving Lina's first kiss with a guy at her school, amazed that I was now emotionally invested in a movie whose predecessor had characters I couldn't even remember the faces of. Annalise Basso is excellent as Lina, the de facto everywoman for most of the film, able to deftly handle the terror she experiences throughout. Elizabeth Reaser is similarly solid, bringing a strength and a melancholy to her widowed mother role, yet with a troubling undercurrent of belief in the benign nature of the spirit she hopes is her husband. Henry Thomas falls naturally into the kindly priest with a past part, bringing some of the innocence from E.T. all those years ago to his work.
As is the case with so many creepy/possessed/haunted child movies, however, the film lives and dies on their performance, and Lulu Wilson does not disappoint. She's not just lazily creepy and unsettling from the start, allowing her to move from the genuinely likable Doris to the malevolent ghoul she ends up becoming. She's helped in a big way by the makeup effects and CG teams, allowing something as simple as having eyes with no irises in them to be a terrifying visual, despite its use in numerous horror films before this one. Flanagan and his DoP Michael Fimognari of course support this in the best way, lighting Doris' face with eerie glow from a television, say, or keeping her in shadow with just her white eyes piercing the darkness. Overall, Flanagan creates a permeating sense of dread throughout. This isn't some hacky jump scare machine, and so when the scares do come in the third act, they're far more effective.
For a movie about the pain of grief destroying a loving family from the inside, Origin is incredibly fun. Flanagan embraces the time period of the late 60's not in terms of pop culture references and trappings (as James Wan does with the 70s in the Conjuring films) but in terms of film history, utilizing everything from split diopter shots to composition styles to putting reel change cigarette burns at the end of every "reel" (a staple of film projection, which digital has removed the need for). Unlike the Rodriguez/Tarantino Grindhouse experience (or Rodriguez's half of it, anyway), this isn't done as a gimmick, but rather lends an authenticity to the movie as if it came from the era it's set in, amplifying the horror elements by grounding it in the past. The film also acts as an incredibly responsible prequel, with Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard making call backs and tie ins to the previous installment with such fidelity you'd think the first Ouija was beloved source material on par with the Marvel Comics universe. 2016 has been a fantastic year for mainstream studio horror films, with each major release containing not only great filmmaking craft but rich thematic substance, and Ouija: Origin Of Evil is no exception. Go see it with a friend, or break the rules of Ouija and play it alone...at your own risk, of course.