Friday, October 20, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: O is for Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

As a recent widow struggles to pay the bills as a spiritual medium in 1967 Los Angeles, we get the full gist of her standard operating procedures as the latest reading for a father and his highly skeptical daughter goes off the rails a bit, leading to a near cardiac infarction for the man, trying to contact his dead wife, explaining why the clients skipped out on the bill. And while these spiritual readings Alice Zander (Reaser) puts on are phony and completely staged, her intentions are noble as her goal is to help people find closure (for a nominal fee) and allow them to move on with their lives -- unlike her own family, who are all still reeling from the sudden death of her husband, Roger (Weaver), at the hands of a drunk driver, and who are all still struggling to come to grips with this loss.

Thus, helping with this fortune teller act are Alice’s two daughters: fifteen year old Lina (Brasso) and six-year old Doris (Wilson; with the eldest daughter playing the summoned ghost in black (-- who got a little over zealous this last round), while the youngest is secreted inside a cabinet to run several of the mechanisms and gizmos needed to pull off the ruse. And while Lina is old enough to know this is all good-natured bunkum, Doris is slightly confused over this scam, knowing they’re trying to help people but wonders why they don’t use the routine to talk to daddy. Thus and so, feeling things need some spicing up, Lina suggests adding one of those new-fangled Ouija Board games to the act. And facing foreclosure on their home, Alice is desperate enough to try just about anything to bring in more business.

However, according to the handy instructions, there are three rules for using the Ouija Board: one, never play alone; two, never play in a graveyard; and three, always remember to sign off by saying ‘goodbye’ before putting the game away. And while tinkering with the planchette so it can be manipulated by some unseen magnets underneath the table, Alice manages to unwittingly break all three rules (-- yes, all three), which is then compounded further when young Doris clandestinely uses the board to talk with her dad but connects with a spirit named Marcus instead, who leads her to a large sum of cash hidden in a wall of the unfinished basement. And while this found money is a godsend for the family, her little sister’s ever-escalating bizarre and creepy behavior soon has Lina conversing with the principal of her school, Father Tom (Thomas), hoping he can translate some writing she found in her sister’s bedroom; page after page written in what appears to be Polish. And did I mentioned she witnessed Doris writing all of this down? Like I said: weird.

Meantime, after the family uses the board to contact Roger’s spirit, who answers a question through Doris only he would know, Alice believes Doris has the true gift of second sight as she talks openly with the spirits of the dead and manipulates the board without the use of those magnets; and so, she lets her take the lead with the clients. But the audience knows better, knowing full well Doris has been possessed by some malevolent force who is manipulating those around her and causing bodily harm to those she feels threatened by, including a couple of bullies at her school and Lina’s new boyfriend, Mikey (Mack). Thus, with Alice transfixed and duped, it’s up to Lina to convince her mother that something’s terribly wrong with Doris and save her before it’s too late for all of them...

You know, I saw Ouija (2014), a film to which Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) is a prequel to. Even saw it at the theater but, even if my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the movie or what happened except that it most probably involved a Ouija Board. And so, I looked it up online, hoping a plot synopsis might trigger a few latent memories. And while it really didn’t, I was able to piece together that in present day a seemingly possessed Ouija Board, under the influence of a nasty spirit that always manifests as a little girl with her mouth sewn shut, causes a group of teens to murder themselves most gruesomely until several clues lead the final girl to the home of the first victim -- a house that used to belong to the Zanders, who misused the game in the first place, setting all of this in motion. Got it? Good.

Now, the origin of the Ouija Board can be traced back to ancient China and a method of writing called fuji -- or planchette writing, which was a tool used to channel the dead to spell out their messages on a board of letters. This spiritual writing phenomenon really took hold in the United States post-Civil War, when the spiritualist movement really took off as dubious mediums employed various means of “communicating” with the dead to exploit the numerous people hoping to contact relatives lost in the war. Then, a Baltimore businessmen, Elijah Bond, patented the first talking board in February, 1891. But it was an employee of Bond’s, a William Fuld, who came up with the name, Ouija Board, which derived either from an ancient Egyptian word meaning “good luck” or simply combined the French and German words of “yes."

Then, in 1966, the Fuld estate, who had taken over the manufacturing of the game from Bond in the early 1900s, sold the rights for the Ouija Board to Parker Brothers (-- who were later bought out by Hasbro in 1991), who soon unleashed a handy-dandy home version of the game, causing a bit of a stir in the religious community, who long loathed the idea of communing with spirits and the evil that kind of thing wrought on unsuspecting folks, like, say, the fictionalized Zander family, currently paying the price for tampering with the unknown. (You’d think there’d be a warning label on the box.)

And after accumulating some damning evidence, when a concerned Father Tom visits the house, hoping to have a session with Doris and the Ouija Board, this attempt to contact his late wife appears to be a success. But after he takes Alice and Lina aside, he confesses this was all a ruse, explaining the evil spirit possessing and transmogrifying Doris can read minds and he was just feeding it the wrong answers. He then reveals those pages Lina found were written by a Polish jew named Marcus, who was taken captive during World War II and, along with many others, was subjected to some ghastly experiments by a sadistic Nazi scientist looking to unlock some occult secrets through the pain and suffering of his patients.

And to make matters worse, this very same scientist managed to sneak into America after the war ended and renewed his ghastly experiments, capturing a liberated and migrated Marcus, who had recognized him and wanted to identify him to the authorities, only to wind up trapped in a secret room underneath the house, with his tongue cut out and his vocal chords slit, just like all the others trapped there, who were all buried inside the walls of the basement. Hence, the Zanders had played the game in a graveyard all along, and several times, and really stirred these angry spirits up who are now looking for revenge against the living for forsaking them. Here, Alice finally comes around and realizes her tragic mistake. Never fear, says Father Tom; seems he’s contacted the Church and a special exorcist squad is on the way. And so for now, they just need to get everyone out of the house.

Alas, while the others converse in secret, Mikey picks the wrong time for a visit, who unearths the secret lab through the basement wall via Doris’ demonic manipulations before she forces the boy to kill himself in front of the others. And then things really get nuts as the now totally possessed Doris lures them to the secret chamber, murders Father Tom, knocks out Lina, and chains up her mother on an operating table, who had offered herself as a sacrifice in a failed attempt to save her children, and starts fondling some very sharp instruments. Meanwhile, the true spirit of Roger carries Lina to her bedroom and manages to cajole his daughter into remembering an earlier incident she blamed on Doris when she found someone had sewn the mouth of her old doll shut. Doris denied doing this, saying it was their father, who was trying to stop and shut up the overwhelming voices. Here, the quarter finally drops and Lina realizes she must sew Doris’ mouth shut to quiet the spirits and save her mother before her tongue is cut out. But as the old saying goes, easier said than done.

Having no recollection of the first film I have no idea why I wound up in the theater to watch the prequel -- must’ve been the trailer. *shrugs* Anyhoo, whatever the reason, glad I did because I enjoyed the hell out of Ouija: Origin of Evil even though I felt the climax took an abrupt left turn -- I mean, Nazis? Really?! Wow. In fact, it suffers from the same bane of many modern day horror films: the third act plot dump, where a convenient expert shows up to explain your Bagul problem or some convenient and very specific websites give you the lowdown on the Black Mirror Society. At the time of the initial viewing, I kinda let that slide, figuring this all somehow dovetailed into the conclusion of the pre-prequel sequel original movie. But further research shows that, no, it really didn’t -- the Nazi stuff, I mean.

See, even though Lina manages to save her mom by sewing up Doris’s mouth, silencing the spirits possessing her, this proves fatal to her little sister. And to make things even worse, the malignant spirits, through Doris, had already implanted the instructions in Lina to murder their mom, and so, a temporarily possessed Lina does this, allowing her mom to join Roger and Doris on the other side, bringing things to a rather bittersweet conclusion.

And as we reach the epilogue, we find Lina has now been committed to an asylum after being arrested for killing her mom, Father Tom, and her failure to disclose the location of Doris, who is presumed dead but has just been sealed up inside the secret lair. (I guess Lina did all of this before the holy cops arrived.) Thus, deemed insane, she will spend the rest of her days isolated in her room with a makeshift Ouija Board, scrawled out in her own blood, which she uses to contact Marcus, who once again manifests himself as her little sister, who, you may remember, was the root cause of all the trouble in Ouija. In fact, an aged Lina (Lin Shaye) shows up in the pre-prequel sequel original movie (-- and the post-credit stinger for this movie, too), visited in the asylum by that film's protagonist, Laine Morris (Olivia Cooke), claiming to be her niece, who is tricked into finding Doris’ body and freeing her mouth for … reasons as the pre-prequel sequel original movie collapses under the weight of a five car twist-pile-up -- well, according to the Wikipedia entry I just read.

But let's just forget about Ouija, as it’s already been firmly established that I sure did, and focus on Ouija: Origin of Evil. Apparently, while a critical disaster the first film was commercially successful enough to warrant a sequel. But producer Jason Blum decided he wanted to make something “significantly different” than Ouija and sent out feelers to director Mike Flanagan, who had produced the total mind-f@ck of a movie, Absentia (2011), and the more grounded horror of Oculus (2015). 

Now Blum and his Blumhouse Productions have provided a mini-renaissance of low-budget horror films and franchises for the masses, producing the likes of Paranormal Activity (2003), Insidious (2010), Sinister (2012), and The Purge (2013). And while Flanagan claimed to have an “allergy to sequels” Blum talked him into doing a prequel by giving him free rein to do the type of horror film he wanted to make: a period piece that dealt with family dynamics. There was even talk about letting the film just be a stand alone piece but Flanagan felt it was necessary to connect the two but kept the links as subtle as possible.

Inspired by films like The Changeling (1980), The Watcher in the Woods (1980) and The Exorcist (1973), Flanagan was very committed to capturing the feel of the period that went way beyond costuming, set decorations and production design -- which were all pretty great by the way. Nope. The director took it one step further, shooting the film as if it were made in the late 1960s, including antique lenses, scene fades, and a lot of zooms instead of employing a Steadicam. They also purposefully added dust to the negative, subtle warping of the audio track, and blatant watermarks for the nonexistent reel changes. It all works beautifully. Alas, this did not mean the film used practical special-effects of that era as most if not all the gags were pulled off with CGI. However, there are no real gaffes and, again, the possession of Doris was pulled off really, really well.

And while this prequel, too, kinda suffers from a whackadoodle climax it’s firmly anchored by the cast and the commitment to the period setting. I mean, it really helps your horror movie when you get invested in the characters involved; and you definitely like the Zanders, buy into their grief and financial strains, and are rooting for them all to make it, which really gives the downer ending some unexpected punch. Both Elizabeth Reaser and Annalise Basso are great but the true star of the film is Lulu Wilson, who carries her pivotal role and the film with ease. And it really makes one uncomfortable watching her being put through the wringer, her body contorted, her mouth constantly stretched into a terrible rictus -- man, it’s some real and truly creepy shit.

Thus and so, Ouija: Origin of Evil fits right into the Blumhouse wheelhouse of serviceable thrillers, easily equaling the likes of The Belko Experiment (2016) and Split (2016), but not quite reaching the heights and social commentary of Get Out (2017). But for what it was, and what it set out to do, I would say the film not only reached its cinematic goals but exceeded them; a rare occasion where the sequel / prequel proves far superior than the original. And proved so superior, it can easily stand on its own and, unlike the the film that spawned it, will definitely leave a lasting impression.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 15 down with 11 to go! I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. Up next: a haunting in suburbia.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) Allspark Pictures :: Blumhouse Productions :: Dentsu :: Fuji Television Network :: Hasbro :: Platinum Dunes :: Universal Pictures / EP: Victor Ho, Trevor Macy, Couper Samuelson, Jeanette Brill / P: Michael Bay, Jason Blum, Stephen Davis, Phillip Dawe, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller, Brian Goldner / D: Mike Flanagan / W: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard, Juliet Snowden (Ouija), Stiles White (Ouija) / C: Michael Fimognari / E: Mike Flanagan / M: The Newton Brothers / S: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack


Anonymous said...

I never saw the first film and couldn't figure out the post-credits sequence. I've read several explanations but yours is the best-written by far.

Now I feel like I need to watch the 2014 installment, forgettable though it may be;)

W.B. Kelso said...

One of the best things about Ouija OoE is stands well enough on its own. Thanks for reading.

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