“Don’t seek answers from the dead,” warns an elderly housekeeper when she finds out her teenage charges are using an antique Ouija board.
Of COURSE they’re not going to listen, but is this any way to sell Ouija boards? Hasbro not only is credited as owning the rights on “Ouija,” it has its own production company on board. It’s hard to recall a manufacturer helping produce a movie that works this hard warning consumers not to use its product. And chances are the last thing anyone is going want to do after watching this PG-13, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, harum-scarum is gather round the family Ouija board.
In “Ouija,” Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”) plays Laine, a high school student mourning the recent, unexpected suicide of her best friend Debbie (Shelley Hennig from MTV’s “Teen Wolf”). Laine and Debbie used to play with a Ouija board when they were little, and so Laine twists the arms of her circle of friends to use an old Ouija board Laine finds in Debbie’s closet to try to commune with her spirit.
Of COURSE it isn’t going to go well. It isn’t a secret to the audience that Debbie’s suicide was prompted by malevolent supernatural forces, and those forces are still hard at work when Laine shows up at the scene of the suicide with her boyfriend (Darren Kagasoff), Debbie’s boyfriend (Douglas Smith, her wisecracking girlfriend (Bianca Santos) and slightly goth younger sister (Ana Coto) with the Ouija board in hand. The spirits at work here soon prove homicidal, including, in a gruesome bit sure to annoy your dentist, death by dental floss.
This is a haunted house theme park ride of a movie, and the point is to make the audience jump. The good news is that it delivers when it has to. Freshman director Stiles White (who co-wrote the script with Juliet Snowden) orchestrates the jumps competently, though he might have upped the tempo of the sometimes plodding pace. Still, try as you might to predict where the jumps are coming, they’re gonna get you sooner or later, if only because White has no shame about using the cheap, but tried-and-true device of exploiting loud sound effects to startle the audience. Note: this device is incredibly effective in theaters, but virtually never works on home video.
On the other hand, “Ouija” inarguably suffers from an acute case of horror movie logic. Of COURSE we should wait until dark to go into the haunted basement, particularly when the hostile ghosts in question have a proven track record of draining flashlight batteries and blowing fuses. The adolescent characters are amazingly unencumbered by adult supervision while all this is going on.
The ridiculously attractive young cast (several of whom are approaching thirty) performs at least as creditably as did the casts of the stab’em/slash’ems of the late seventies and early eighties, in which characters frequently behaved no more intelligently than they do here. Shelley Hennig, in particular, seems destined for bigger and better. The best acting in the movie actually comes from veteran character actress Lin Shaye, as a wheelchair-bound asylum patient who may have an agenda of her own.
The micro-budget production makes the most of its modest resources, and gets good mileage out of a few good make-up effects and white contact lenses. The photography by David Emmerichs is moody and atmospheric. Unlike the universally R-rated low budget horror movies of the late seventies and early eighties, “Ouija” does not rely on graphic violence, gratuitous nudity or token drug references. Quite the contrary, the movie is squarely marketed at the high school crowd, who will be picked up by their parents at the mall after the movie. That audience is fairly undemanding, and will probably turn out in sufficient numbers to make “Ouija” profitable. And horror movies like this should be seen in a theater if only to maximize the rollercoaster effect. “Ouija” benefits strongly from having large numbers of shrieking teens and tweens in a theater setting to boost its modest, if effective, jump moments.