When it comes to horror movies, I’ve always been more a fan of the paranormal (such as Poltergeist and Stir of Echoes) than the psychotic killer chasing after a bunch of screaming sorority girls, so I expected a lot from Ouija, a film that revolves around a board game that itself is inherently freaky (and has been used in dozens of other supernatural films, including various films with the same title). Like a lot of kids, I had a Ouija board growing up, and though I don’t remember much about the content of playing the game, the experience of participating was always a bit dicey — whether it was not knowing if one of the other kids was deliberately moving the planchette, the energy of everyone’s thoughts was unconsciously pushing it, or if something more was happening — which lends itself well to creating an extremely creepy atmosphere. But when a movie like Ouija asks you to believe in something greater, the extraordinary must be grounded in some type of logic, a step the filmmakers forgot to include among the unoriginal scares.
The rules of the game (and in essence, the film — or at least should have been) are established in the first scene as we’re introduced to best friends Laine and Debbie, who play the game together for the first time. From there we jump ahead ten years or so when Debbie (Shelley Hennig) hangs herself after breaking the first rule of playing the game by yourself, waking a spirit that has been dormant inside the house for a very long time and showing us the potential it had to be a the creepy supernatural horror film it was meant to be.
It helps that Laine is played by Olivia Cooke, who made a name for herself as Norman’s best friend on Bates Motel and who did a terrific job as the psychotic test subject in this year’s mediocre The Quiet Ones. Her spirit and honesty in every situation (as well as her chance to finally play a normal teenager) allows her to be the relatable anchor the story needed… had the story given her material that didn’t stifle her performance. Cooke does exactly what she’s asked to do but is never allowed to take any risks, a problem that permeates all aspects of the film. As a director, Stiles White (who co-wrote the script with Juliet Snowden) keeps everything so simple, it almost feels as if he’s scared to go beyond the norm for fear of losing his audience.
And it starts with the one-note supporting players, which include Debbie and Laine’s boyfriends, Pete (Douglas Smith) and Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), respectively, Laine’s sister, Sarah (Ana Coto), and… the other, non-essential friend, Isabelle (Bianca A. Santos). Though Isabelle and Sarah have distinct enough personalities, the boys are interchangeable and we’re never given reason to believe why any of them were dating. All of them come off as mere followers, complacent in supporting all of Laine’s whims, even if they don’t necessarily believe any of what she believes. When she invites them to join her in playing the game in hopes of contacting Debbie to say goodbye, the lot of them couldn’t care less, but it’s only right to tag along because they’re friends.
That’s all well and good — normal even. It’s after that initial connection with Debbie (or whom they believe to be Debbie) that freaky things begin to occur… and logic is left behind. White wants us to believe that the spirit has attached itself to the kids through the board, but never explains why the spirit can haunt them outside of Debbie’s house and nowhere near the game. We are told at some point that the longer the kids are linked to the game, the more powerful the spirit becomes, but if we’re to believe that the spirit can travel with the kids outside of the home, then why must they always return to Debbie’s house to contact the spirit? Instead of answering this discrepancy, White chooses to follow the Final Destination rulebook of going after each individual kid without understanding why it worked so well for that particular paranormal entity, perhaps because he isn’t all that confident in his ability to create something fresh.
There are also several moments in the film where White presents us with a sense of dread that is key to any good horror movie, but which lack any sort of closure. For example, early on in the film, Trevor goes to pull the cover of Debbie’s pool into place, but can’t quite seem to reach it. As he stretches out farther than he should, we cut to Laine wandering around the house, only to eventually run into Trevor. The pool does play a key role later in the film, however, this particular scene fails to hold our attention because it never finished what it started. It’s this type of tease (and lack of conclusion) that hurts the credibility of the rest of the film and opens your eyes to other aspects of the film that seem to have accidentally hit the cutting room floor. One of which is a rather huge misstep in Isabelle’s character arc.
After being spooked by a message written on her car window, which is subsequently wiped away by a hand of someone who isn’t in the car, Trevor tells Laine that Isabelle refuses to leave the house because she’s so scared — which if you ask me, is quite a respectable response. However, in the very next scene, Laine has convinced everyone to return to Debbie’s house and contact the spirit — including Isabelle, who appears to be perfectly fine. Wait… what? She was so scared that she’s willing to continue to play Ouija as if nothing had ever happened? Where’s the scene of Laine talking her into coming back? It may be a minor scene, but it’s too important of a piece to have been overlooked.
Another piece of the Ouija puzzle that never really goes anywhere except to try and make Sarah appear to be some sort of rebel that she clearly isn’t revolves around Sarah’s seemingly older boyfriend, who we never get to see beyond the outside of his car. Laine does her best to be the mother in this instance (and throughout the film, for that matter) by forcing her sister to stay away from him, which leads Sarah to defy her big sister as sister’s do. But what exactly does this subplot have anything to do with anything? The boyfriend disappears from the script at the end of the first act, and as far as the girl’s relationship goes, it never seems to be as bad as White wants us to think it is. The only change the script offers in this relationship is the shared experience that may or may not help them bond in the future.
The biggest issue with the film, though, is in the weakness of the third act. For the bulk of the film’s second half, White has built up this idea that breaking the link between the board and the spirits is one of the hardest things to do. Yet, like the rest of the script, the climax is all too easy, as it spends very little time building any suspense whatsoever. There is a nice hint of genuine emotion at the tail end of the final battle, but that too is so straightforward it’s fleeting.
I feel that if the film had had more of that one simple act, and focused on developing these moments more deeply, the movie as a whole would have been a lot stronger. As it stands, the strength of the film relies too heavily on a plot that never seeks to be anything but a series of mundane scares. And though the cast as a whole is fine (doing a good job with what they were given), and some of what Stiles White tries to do is good on its face (including the special effects and a really good mini-twist that closes out the second act), the material fails in creating a world that we can associate with, leaving us with a bunch of hollow scares in connection with a game that should have the power to keep you from ever sleeping again.
My Grade: C+
Next week, new movies include Before I Go To Sleep and Nightcrawler. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.