Who knew a board game with such an affirmative name could lead to so much pain, anguish, death, and damnation?
Named after the French and German words for yes (oui and ja), the Ouija board has spelled disaster for movie characters going all the way back to the 1920 silent short The Ouija Board.
Personal favorites include Lewis Allen's 1944 classic The Uninvited, and Kevin Tenney's wonderfully sleazy Witchboard from 1986 starring pinup-poster-and-music-video siren Tawny Kitaen.
It was only a matter of time before the spirit board would be co-opted by Jason Blum, the genre producer par excellence behind the megaselling Paranormal Activity, Purge, Insidious, and Sinister franchises.
But his 2014 entry, Ouija, was a boring, formulaic ghost story about a bunch of screaming and squeaking teenage girls.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is a totally different animal.
While it's not entirely successful, this stylish shocker is a big step up from the earlier film. Directed with panache by Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush), it's an inventive cross between a haunted-house mystery, a demonic-possession yarn, and a creepy murderous-child freak-out. Set in Los Angeles in the groovy, heady (and head-shop-heavy) late '60s, it also has a nice period vibe.
Child actor Lulu Wilson (The Millers) gives a jaw-dropping performance as the psycho-kid, a frightfully intuitive (if awfully perplexed) girl named Doris Zander who is mourning the recent death of her dad. The tragedy has driven a wedge between Doris and her teenage sister Paulina (Annalise Basso), who can't understand why Doris spends all her time contemplating death.
Doris spends sleepless nights wondering if her father's spirit is nearby, protecting her. It's not the kind of question a little kid usually asks - unless she happens to work as an assistant to her mom, who is a professional medium.
Portrayed with an understated, natural ease by Elizabeth Reaser (Grey's Anatomy, The Good Wife), Alice Zander is a melancholy, almost poetic soul who runs a spiritualism parlor out of the house. A scam artist with a heart of gold, she pretends to channel the spirits of loved ones for their grieving relatives, barely eking out a living.
Then one day, Doris starts using mom's Ouija board, and actual, honest-to-goodness supernatural stuff starts happening all over the house.
Alas, Alice is so overjoyed to find proof of the afterlife, she doesn't notice her little girl transforming from a Cindy Brady type to a female Damien Thorn. Luckily, family priest Father Tom (Henry Thomas) keeps his eye on the ball and acts when violence erupts.
Flanagan's film tends to rely too much on formulaic plot twists borrowed from every major creepazoid-kid shocker from 1960's Village of the Damned to Children of the Corn, The Exorcist, and We Need to Talk About Kevin.
The film also has a disappointing tendency to use digital special effects that look more silly than scary. Mouths extend into gaping, monstrous jaws; bodies writhe in midair and crawl across the ceiling like little cartoon characters; shadows flit about with a digital smoothness that robs them of real density.
But Ouija: Origin of Evil delivers where it matters, with solid performances, characters we care about, and some seriously freaky scares.
Ouija: Origin of Evil
2 1/2 stars (Out of four stars)
Directed by Mike Flanagan. With Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, Henry Thomas. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (disturbing images, terror, and thematic elements).
Playing at: Area theaters.