If the prospect of having to adapt a spirit board for the screen is already a grim enterprise, to have to also follow up the unquailed disaster that was Ouija is certainly a fool’s errand. Except Mike Flanagan, one of the most idiosyncratic horror directors currently working, is no fool. Time and again, he’s proven canny at sneaking an off-kilter and decidedly un-ironic sense of the macabre into big-studio horror productions, which typically depend on snarky humor and ostensibly fashionable scare tactics. At its best, Ouija: Origin of Evil shows up James Wan’s slick craftsmanship by complementing goose-pimply frights with an unabashedly naked emotional gravitas.
That should come as no surprise to fans of Flanagan’s work, especially those lucky to have already seen Before I Wake, which remains in distribution limbo in the U.S. due to Relativity Media’s bankruptcy woes. That film, also co-written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, weirdly but confidently straddles many genres, from fantasy to melodrama; its sense of terror, so elegantly and successfully sustained, hinges on a heady linkage between all that goes bump in the night and the mind-altering intensity of grief. In many ways, Origin of Evil is a retread, as a dark figure not unlike the one that haunts the family from Before I Wake also lurks in the periphery of this film’s frames. But Falangan’s oeuvre, consistent in its fixation on how individuals process trauma, is like an onion, and with each new work, the filmmaker peels away another layer of reality.
Origin of Evil begins some 50 years prior to the events depicted in Ouija, in 1967’s Los Angeles, but filling in the past of Paulina Zander, played in the first film by Lynn Shaye, is primarily Flanagan’s way of indulging his propensity for keying his formalist frights to his characters’ subjectivities against a sea of polyester clothes, Eames furniture, and old Chevys. As Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) drives her girls, Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), from school one day, the camera hangs close to the side of the vehicle while panning slowly to the right, collapsing our perception of the exterior world. For Flanagan, the artifice of his 1960s setting exists for him to stress in new ways how living with grief is not unlike being suspended in time.
Early in Origin of Evil, inside the home where Alice runs a racket in which she convinces locals that she can communicate with the dead, Doris casually watches a 1956 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents titled “The Older Sister.” The snippet glimpsed of the episode, which concerns Lizzie Borden and her relationship to her older sister, has a woman telling the young Borden that she’s not what she expected. Flanagan cleverly places the show and his own film in conversation with one another, winking at their shared fixation on how families function while in the throes of bereavement.
In Origin of Evil, the spectacle by which Doris comes to be possessed by a dark, mouthless entity that may or may not be the spirit of her dead father is nearly as chilling as Alice’s unquestioning acceptance of her little girl’s crisis. The smoke and mirrors they put on for clients during the film’s prologue becomes unnecessary once they can rely on Doris’s new friend to slide the planchette across the Ouija board for them. And mother and daughter’s grief spiral, rooted in a perverse spectacle of mutual and relaxed exploitation, is made all the more haunting by how unconventionally Flanagan springs his scares. The filmmaker realizes that the jump-scare-a-thon still reigns supreme, and he resists canned scare tactics almost at every turn: Ghoulies haunt the periphery of the frames, as if self-consciously refusing to jump out at us, and no vision here is more frightening than Doris casually watching television, her eyes milky and her mouth stretched to the ground.
Flanagan delights in using his camera to trace the movements of the Ouija board as it’s lifted from its case and placed on a table, and to the left and right as characters peer through the planchette and at the spirits they fear it may reveal to them. But there’s a certain lack of conviction to the way the Ouija board is incorporated into the story, and by the time the object ceases to matter at all, the film almost fatally succumbs to the hoariness of horror conventions, from exorcisms and vengeful spirits, that are trotted out with erratic abandon. Still, if these conventions ultimately feel a little too disconnected from the pains that inform the Zander family’s almost cultish sense of grief, Flanagan’s distinctive framing of a final torrent of scares allows the film to at least rise above the ranks of similar freak-outs whose potential for originality is perpetually held at bay by franchise demands.