The horror film genre has offered up many classics for the sacrificial altar of the mass media, such as “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Saw,” that have given rise to marketing tycoons still reaping the benefits of cheap thrills and iconic costume design.
Unlike those classic snooze-fests, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (2016) boasts the impressive feat of being both a multi-hour Halloween-style advertisement for a Hasbro-owned board game that’s already heavily commercialized, as well as a prequel to an acceptably gag-worthy original (which is also an ad for a Hasbro-owned board game).
Much like those other classic horror films, this movie is also incredibly, farcically cheesy.
The movie takes place in 1967 Los Angeles, the site of many thriller-worthy snippets of cinematic history that are not critically acclaimed. “Hellraiser: Inferno,” “Resident Evil: Afterlife” and “Sharknado” are all set in LA and are all much better movies.
The movie begins at the house of widow-turned-ethical scam artist Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), who runs a family-owned fortune teller con operation with her two impressionable daughters Lina (Annalise Basso), exemplar of the delightfully quasi-innocent teenager trope, and Doris (Lulu Wilson), the cheerful yet strangely socially awkward nine-year-old.
Alice, who is the film’s take on Madame Zeroni from “Holes,” cons an old man and his irritable daughter who, coincidentally, is also revealed to be in the midst of scamming her dear old daddy. Naturally, the trio must save the day with a counter-con, because that makes scamming the elderly so much better.
After Lina appears in a scary ghost costume, the old man is convinced not to go through with his daughter’s scam and hobbles out the door. In a sudden twist of passion that is likely to remain a theme throughout the film, Alice refuses to be paid for her con, citing moral principle as sufficient compensation for helping an old man through a tragedy (by playing to his superstitions and impressionability, of course).
Later that night, Lina escapes home for a rousing night of partying and liquor, which is totally not a horror movie cliché that has been beaten to death. The group of high school miscreants then spot, surprise of all surprises, the Ouija board game, the scare-tastic sensation that’s fun for the whole family.
They turn down the lights and set up the game. One of the teens present in this congress of baboons, gets absurdly freaked out when the piece everyone is touching starts moving about. Many predictably teenage questions are asked to the freaky board manufactured by Chinese sweatshop slaves, including whether Lina’s love interest (groan) will ask her to the homecoming dance. Thankfully, one of the parents suddenly tromps into the room, leaving the stereotypically timid girl pricelessly terrified.
The movie then somehow manages to devolve into a nearly 30-minute exposition on the life of a widow trying to raise two daughters, which, while touching, is best fit told in a Hallmark movie, not a horror flick.
This movie’s very existence is tied to exactly two things: the marketing power of scary things, and the audiences’ natural draw to things that claim to be scary. Hollywood churns this mushy, bland butter for us because we’ve stopped asking for better.
Perhaps the movie industry has become incapable of making a decent scary movie. The times when producers could craft a masterpiece of thrills like “Jaws,” “Scream” or “American Psycho” have faded with the rise of mass manufacturing and budget blockbusters. “Ouija” is hardly a unique exposé into why horror films have stopped being scary; in fact, it has nothing unique to say at all.