It's a classic horror movie trope. Right before adventuring into a haunted cabin, an evil cemetery or some other obviously creepy locale, one of the soon-to-be-victims usually chimes in with, "I’ve got a bad feeling about this" (usually right after discovering no one’s getting a cell phone signal anymore). It’ll ring very familiar to fans of the genre, even more so than usual for those trotting their way into a screening of "Ouija" this upcoming Halloween.
Predictably, both scenarios end in doom, though in the case of the poor audience members seeing the board game based horror flick (because, you know, nothing screams horror like Hasbro), they’ll be menaced by something even scarier than evil demons or ghouls: tedium and boredom. Perhaps the wannabe screamer is due some credit, though, because as a loyal adaptation, it manages to be just as flimsy and silly as the game on which it’s based.
Olivia Cooke (from the equally limp horror attempt "The Quiet Ones") plays Laine, the everyday normal leader of the movie’s band of generic and cliché friends and soon-to-be victims. There’s the vaguely promiscuous one (Bianca Santos), the punky one (Ana Coto), the sympathetic boyfriend (Daren Kagasoff) and the kinda nerdy awkward one (Douglas Smith). Unfortunately, no one gets to be the particularly intelligent one who’s seen a horror movie before and therefore has strong self-preservation instincts.
Sadly, the final member in their group of friends, Debbie (Shellie Hennig), kills herself under mysterious circumstances in the opening sequence. Laine, haunted by her friend’s peculiar suicide, decides she wants to communicate with her lost friend one last time, and what better way to do so than with a board game one can find stocked on the shelves of your local Toys R’ Us.
Laine and company fire up the Ouija board, and soon start communicating with the dearly departed Debbie. But – gasp! – it’s not Debbie, a pretty obvious conclusion – unless she had a habit of etching eerie messages like "Hi Friend" into wooden desks and fogged windows – that our amateur paranormal investigators sure take their sweet time reaching. Nope, instead it’s your usual collection of raging ghouls with an angry grudge against living, breathing things. Ensue characters screaming and viewers yawning.
Even though the characters are bland clichés, the acting from the young cast is surprisingly decent, especially Cooke. She sells the pain of losing someone so unexpectedly almost well enough that you almost buy her mildly obsessed actions. One day, the young actress might be in a horror movie up to her potential; "Ouija" is far from it.
When the adequate acting is the most notable part of your horror movie, however, you’ve made a grave mistake.
Everything else in "Ouija" is devoid of life and creativity, a generic horror movie template plucked off the conveyor belt, given a fancy brand name and then shoved out in time for Halloween. The script, from Juliet Snowen and director Stiles White, takes its sweet time in the early going, wasting a lot of time with uninteresting characters and setting up a standard-issue haunted enter-item-here story – one that only summons more overdone and tired clichés as it goes along.
Of course there’s a Hispanic nanny-like character who warns against toying with spirits and gives expositional guidance. And of course the characters are traditional horror movie idiots who don't run when given the message, "RUN." There’s the predictable third act twist that would actually be more of a surprise if it didn't happen. Even when rejuvenated cult horror icon Lin Shaye (the far better "Insidious" movies) shows up, what should be a charming and clever appearance plays more like the filmmakers lazily had no better casting ideas.
Much could be forgiven if "Ouija" had a few decent scares or even some entertaining jolts, but White, making his directorial debut, demonstrates little of the creativity he may have picked up as a long-time production coordinator working with the legendary Stan Winston. Most of the scare tactics are predictable – a door swinging open and closed here, a big-mouthed ghoul roaring over there – and delivered with the same rote, minimal effort. No atmosphere. No sense of spookiness. No real build up. Even the cheap jump scares are given perfunctory treatment, as though they merely needed to get checked off the Standard PG-13 Horror Movie To-Do List.
A few moments have potential. For example, Debbie’s scene-setting death – a hanging using Christmas lights as a noose – could make for some terrific, eerie imagery, a seemingly pleasant and comforting glowing light slowly illuminating a dark house, only to end in a dead body. That’s a haunting image, but White only half commits to the scene. The result doesn’t even chill.
A scare sequence involving floss is another disappointment. The idea of hurting your delicate, fleshy gums is a real life fear. But instead, White and "Ouija" go with the cheap, hackneyed and really rather silly visual of a mouth sewed shut. Yawn.
Then again, the whole movie is really rather silly. After all, it’s trying to make an Ouija board – a cheap, easily purchasable sleepover game – into some mystical device of terror. It’s about as terrifying as Count Chocula. But this is a Hasbro production, so the game takes center stage. The opening scene elaborates the rules for those who will hopefully play at home, and the climax involves an angel versus demon Ouija-off. And much to my unintentional amusement, the demon seems super pumped to play.
Everything in "Ouija" – even its desperately limp attempt to knowingly mock itself – points to a half-hearted movie where selling board games was the top priority. Making a semi-decent horror flick would’ve just been a bonus. One doesn’t need a spirit board to tell that spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.