The new horror movie “Ouija”, that just opened Friday, October 24, has a strong premise and delivers some choice scares, but ultimately it’s a lazy movie that barely bothers to develop its characters or invest in the tragedy surrounding the story’s supernatural occurrences. It’s a basic, ‘straight-down-the-middle’ thriller, but there are better frights to be had elsewhere. (“Annabelle” is the better choice currently playing at the cinema.)
The key to any horror movie isn’t the ghosts, goblins or gore; it’s whether or not you care about what’s happening to the characters. Empathy is the number one driver of the genre. If you don’t relate, you won’t be frightened. So how is an audience expected to invest in the shallow characters of “Ouija” when they barely show any empathy for their dwindling troop once the spirits conjured from the board game start offing them?
The film starts out promisingly showing two little girls playing the Ouija board game. The rules are expressed, most prominently that the game should never be played alone, and there’s a nice fright or two that sets up these two as close and daring companions. Then, the film jumps forward about a decade to reveal that the two girls have grown into attractive young women – the troubled Debbie (Shelley Hennig) and the calm and quiet Laine (Olivia Cooke). And they’re still best buds.
But Debbie has become a moody girl recently and it worries her bestie. The audience is shown Debbie burning a Ouija board, but she doesn’t tell Laine that it’s still a part of her life. Debbie turns down Laine’s invitation for a night out together, and returns to her home to make dinner alone. Then the doors start closing in the kitchen on their own and the stove’s burner ignites mysteriously. Does Debbie high tail it out of there fast? Or call her friend? Even 1-800-Exorcist? No, she nonchalantly checks things out then heads up stairs to go to bed. Moments later, she discovers the board has returned and a spirit causes her to hang herself.
Now, Ouija boards come with an automatic creep factor so a lot of the heavy lifting is already done just by concept alone. But that doesn’t mean that the filmmakers get a free pass on all the other elements needed to make a good horror movie. The best they can come up for Debbie, who should be terrified, is to casually leave her dinner on the table and shuffle up to bed? Absurd. She loses our sympathy right there, and her death carries less weight because of it.
And it only gets worse from there. Laine discovers Debbie’s Ouija board and feels the need to find out more about her friend’s untimely death, so she gathers her boyfriend, Debbie’s boyfriend, her surly younger sister, and a girlfriend ‘non-believer’ who might as well have ‘first victim’ stamped on her forehead. They’re a boring, stock group of teens, and none of them have any outstanding qualities or character traits, so we have no real rooting interest in them. At least one of them could have been decadent and witty, to give their banter some spark, and to make us care about what happens to them.
Soon they make contact with a spirit through Debbie’s Ouija board, but they’re not really sure it’s her that they’ve been communicating with. Afterwards, each of them starts getting hassled by whatever the entity was, and the ghostly prankster starts greeting them with the words “Hi friend” written in mysterious ways. One gets the words carved on his desk, another gets an email message. At least our old school ghost can handle Lotus Notes.
Yet, nobody’s really too terrified by any of it. Doors close again on their own. Noises and shadows appear. One character is shoved into a mirror, but they all keep on keeping’ on. They’re spooked, sure, but not enough to take it to another level with their parents or authorities. The doubting girl even sees her “Hi friend” written in dew on her car window and then witnesses the spirt slamming its hand against the window from inside the car. So what does she do? She gets in and drives home. Really? That’s her reaction under such circumstances? She doesn’t even call AAA?
A glibness starts to creep into one’s viewing of such silly fools missing all the signs around them. You realize that characters in horror movies have to be placed in danger, but these idiots are just asking for it.
Soon, the doubter is dead from an accident that is as mysterious as Debbie’s death was, yet Laine makes no effort to contact her dad who’s away on business and let him know that some real crap is hitting the fan back home. Instead, she and her boyfriend just keep on investigating the strange happenings on their own. Eventually they find a box of photos in the attack of Debbie’s house that holds some answers. Two girls and a mother used to live there back in the 1950’s, and Laine discovers that they were the victims of a double murder. She tracks down the one living daughter in a nearby sanitarium and finds out the reason for the haunting.
The troubled youth is now a wily senior, and she’s played by veteran character actress Lin Shaye. Shaye brings some wit and menace to her role and it’s the only real characterization in the story. She’s has become quite the expert at playing in the genre in the last few years having excelled in the “Insidious” franchise. The crusty old woman instructs Laine on how to defeat the demon of her dead mother and sister, and the teen girl returns to the haunted house.
Olivia Cooke is usually such a terrific actress, doing superb supporting work on the TV frightener “Bates Motel”, but she struggles to find an angle on her blandly written character here. Laine’s only real discernible trait seems to be one of intrepidness. She’s hell bent on contacting Debbie to find out why she died. Unfortunately, she doesn’t show nearly the same worry about her friends when they start dying around her. Where is her sorrow? Her devastation? I guess there’s no time for tears when there’s a demon to slay.
This film runs short, clocking in at under 90 minutes, and that’s with the end credits roll as well. Perhaps the filmmakers realized there were problems with the movie and trimmed away scenes to get horror fans in and out of the Cineplex faster. It certainly feels that way, because the characters show so little reaction to their diminishing numbers that it creates major holes in the logic of the storytelling.
Even when Laine’s boyfriend meets an untimely demise, she keeps forging ahead, trying to get rid of the nasty little demon girl haunting them. You’d think she’d have a more visceral reaction to seeing her high school sweetheart standing as a ghost in front of her, but she seems more unsettled when her flashlight goes out. (Yes, this film deals earnestly in hoary cliches like that one.)
The ghost of the yesteryear girl is actually quite frightening, and the shots of her with her mouth sewn shut by the vicious 50’s mom make for great, ghastly visuals. But that backstory is rushed. Some flashbacks of the 1950’s family could have made their characters more immediate. Maybe that ended up on the cutting room floor as well.
There are so many missed opportunities like that in “Ouija”. Its screenplay keeps telling and not showing, detailing crucial exposition with dull deliveries mouthed by the young cast. This whole movie is a rush, and not in the exhilarating, good way.
Director Stiles White shoots well. We can see exactly what is happening from scene to scene, and he and his editor Ken Blackwell know how to jolt an audience. Still, he and screenwriting partner Juliet Snowden have fashioned a woefully undercooked first draft of a script that no astute directing can help. Despite a game cast and some sharp production values, this story disappoints.
There’s simply not enough depth to the teen characters, the details of the demons barely register, and there’s not a sustained feeling of dread necessary to make this a truly effective genre entry. No cops ever investigate the mounting deaths. The parents are never called to return and comfort their suffering children. And the audience checks the time wondering if it’s not too late to walk out on this misfire and catch the new Keanu Reeves movie across the hall.