A friend’s mysterious and untimely death leads a group of teenagers to use a spirit board to communicate with her. Unwittingly, they awaken a presence that starts to haunt each of them wherever they go. The premise of OUIJA, a horror flick written by scribes Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, the duo behind BOOGEYMAN and KNOWING, is fairly straightforward. In a way, its simplicity is commendable — there’s something more elegant about a horror movie that doesn’t feel the need to pepper in unnecessary frou frou to generate squeals from the audience. In this sense, the film thankfully relies on story more-so than blood and gore. In fact, OUIJA takes its time spinning its tale of evil spirits, which makes it fit right in amongst a slate of recent horror flicks belonging to a movement that can be characterized by its return to more traditional horror storytelling (i.e. James Wan’s INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING, Alejandro Amenàbar’s THE OTHERS and Ti West’s THE INNKEEPERS). Some may not appreciate the film’s slow burn, while others may admire the restraint in keeping the surprises at bay for when they truly count.
On the other hand, OUIJA’s blandness and complete disinterest in taking risks is also what makes it far from a groundbreaking horror film, cementing it as a fairly pedestrian affair with a few good scares. For one, there didn’t seem to be much of an attempt to make the characters remotely interesting, save for Olivia Cooke’s Lainie, whose unflappability was actually kind of fun to watch in comparison to her very milquetoast companions. Nothing fazes Lainie, it seems like. It almost becomes comical to watch her lukewarm reactions to the terrifying things that occur around her. On the upside, however, it was great to see a female character who just takes charge during harrowing situations. That’s the kind of Final Girl we all gladly root for, even though we barely know anything about her other than her great fashion sense and doe-eyed determination.
Any project that dares to include itself in the horror genre should at least do a bang-up job at makeup and special effects, and OUIJA certainly accomplishes that, which slightly elevates the film. There was some great use of shadows and lighting, along with really creepy imagery that was the right balance of deeply unsettling without being unnecessarily grotesque. Despite this, the film had a slightly amateur, low-budget vibe to it that didn’t help the audience really settle into the right mood. For instance, the film could have benefited greatly from more atmosphere-building, exposition scenes that would have given it a real sense of tension and paranoia. Even a brief history of the spirit board before introducing the main plot would have been a welcome set up to the story. For some reason the filmmakers assumed that every audience member would be knowledgable about the Ouija board. A fair assumption, considering it has been one of those iconic horror movie props, but for storytelling’s sake it would have set the ambiance really well if the viewers were reintroduced to its creepy history.
OUIJA also suffered from some pacing issues, with the last half of the film feeling quite rushed, while the first part taking its sweet time — an unfortunate imbalance. Another reason the film comes off as amateurish is that there were some awkwardly timed shots and some snippets that didn’t seem to lend anything particularly important or interesting to the story. The story also never quite reaches its full climax. All of a sudden the characters are rushing to reach a resolution that doesn’t feel ready to be resolved just yet. On a related note, the actors just didn’t seem to have a lot to work with. They may as well have been nameless, faceless people given that each of the characters had zero personality. It’s a waste, too, because there was a hint of potential there, with Lainie’s younger sister Sarah portrayed as a bit of a maladjusted troublemaker. The film would have been far more interesting had it played up the relationship between the two sisters and related this to the disturbing relationship of the family that haunts them.
Overall, there were some really great, genuinely scary moments in OUIJA, and the makeup and special effects department did some impressive work delivering the horror. Yours Truly also appreciated that the film did not play up the same tired old trope of promiscuous teenagers being punished for displaying any hint of sexuality. In fact, this movie was surprisingly modest in that respect, with every character in the movie like someone you would know in real life, only much more boring and devoid of any personality.
Sadly, OUIJA never quite reaches its full potential. Snowden and White had some great ideas, and it’s obvious that the two have a sincere love for the genre. However, the story may not have been executed in the best manner. There was a lack of desperation and character development that made it difficult to really invest in the story. OUIJA isn’t necessarily worth seeing on the big screen, but if you’re just looking for something to watch passively to get in the spirit of Halloween, by all means. It’s a film best reserved, however, for an uneventful evening when you’re in the mood to watch something in your pajamas. With the lights off, of course.