Between Battleship, Clue, and now Ouija: Origin of Evil, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a movie based off a board game that I did not enjoy. It’s a strange feeling, considering how many awful movies based on action figures, video games, and comic books have been released over the years. My best guess as to why the board game movie has a fairly high success rate, besides not having a large number of chances to shit the bed, is that there’s a playfulness inherent to the sub-subgenre that calls for a kind of in-on-the-joke campiness that deflects a lot of potential criticism with a casual wave of the hand. The trailers for Ouija: Origin of Evil signaled to me, “Hey, we’re just having fun here. No pressure,” and the film itself followed through on that cavalier attitude. I’m not saying that Origin of Evil was the kind of lazy, winking affair you’d find in a Sharknado or a Lavalantula, but it did have a playful smirk in the way it chose to deliver its genre thrills, one that undercut any of its generic formula and made me wonder if I might be a fan of the board game movie as an artistic medium.
If there’s anything unfortunate about the ad campaign that hooked me into watching Origin of Evil, it’s that it revealed a little too much. Not only was every potential scare up until the last half hour thoroughly spoiled in the trailers, but the film’s few major narrative reveals were also spelled out in the campaign. Since we know ahead of time that a family of scam artist “psychics” who fake communication with the dead will be taught a harsh lesson by actually communicating with the dead through the titular haunted board game, there’s not much room left for the film to surprise in terms of unexpected story beats. Worse yet, the ads revealed that the youngest, most adorable member of the family would suffer a Linda Blair-style demonic possession that causes her to do & say all the freaky Creepy Kid Horror things we’ve been seeing on film since all the way back to Village of the Damned (if not earlier): spooky voices, inhuman contortions, ice cold precociousness, etc. Where Origin of Evil makes these already-expected tropes worthwhile, then, is in how willing it is to have fun with the very familiar space it carves out for itself.
Like with a lot of recent horror films, Origin of Evil sets its haunted house/board game horrors decades in the past, this time opting for the 1960s instead of the well-worn temporal setting of the 70s (like in The Conjuring & We Are Still Here). This not only makes room for beautiful sets & costuming in its production design and removes pesky horror-prevention inventions like cellphones & Google from the scenario; it also harkens back to a time when the ouija board was new & sacred. The religious adherence to rules like “Don’t play by yourself” & “Never play in a graveyard,” makes it all the more significant when they’re inevitably broken and violators are punished accordingly. Visually, the film also has a lot of fun with the detail allowed by the setting, digitally recreating “cigarette burn” reel changes & indulging in the most split diopter shots I’ve seen since Blow Out. There’s some fun touches in the dialogue that are specific to the era as well, like when a teen boy mansplains to a group of girls why we could never land on the moon & in the general Brady Bunch precociousness of the evil little girl at the film’s center as she gleefully channels the restless spirits of the dead. If set in 2016, Ouija: Origin of Evil might have been a generic, by the books blur (which, by all accounts, its 2014 predecessor Ouija was), but something about a rock ‘n roll 60s familial melodrama being invaded by an evil board game allowed a lot of room for camp horror efficiency & the film had a lot of fun playing around in that space.
It’s difficult to say exactly what I’m looking for when I go see a modern generic horror at the theater, but Ouija: Origin of Evil delivers it with ease. It’s got exactly what I felt was missing from other 2016 titles like The Darkness, The Forest, and (the worst of the bunch) Lights Out, bested only by The Boy in putting a smile on my face while supplying what I want from Modern Big Studio Horror, whatever it is. Director Mike Flanagan, who also helmed Hush & Oculus, has a great track record with making gold out of standard horror fare so far, so surely he should be given some significant credit for crafting an enjoyable prequel to a film I never plan to see here, but I also think there’s something to the board game movie as a novelty subgenre that made his playfulness possible. Using the ouija board as a centerpiece opened up a goofy-spooky playground for Flanagan to let loose in and it’s fun watching him gleefully run in circles with his camera within that environment.