Directed by Mike Flanagan, Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson. Horror, US, 2016, 95mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on digital download on 13th February 2017, and Blu-ray, DVD and on demand on February 27th 2017 by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
(Alice) “The basement...Lina: wait outside.”
(Lina) “No. No way, no, that’s my sister. This is my house, and I’m going with you...Besides, splitting up sounds like the stupidest idea in the world.”
Taking over the reins from Stiles White, director/co-writer Mike Flanagan delivers a retro-tinted character-driven prequel to the 2014 box-office hit OUIJA. We rewind back to a 1967 suburban neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), together with teen daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) and younger daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson), run a home based séance scam business. The act is getting stale until Alice purchases a Ouija board as a prop to enhance their deception. The board game comes with three rules:
1. Never play alone.
2. Never play in a graveyard.
3. Always say goodbye.
Unfortunately, Alice’s blasé attitude as a spiritual charlatan leads to fatal complacency and she promptly breaks rule 1 and 3 (and unknowingly, rule 2 in the bargain). You see the Zander’s seemingly quiet suburban house harbours a dark gruesome secret buried behind its walls, and an evil entity which doesn’t need a second invitation once the Ouija board is opened to find a human host to give it a voice.
The problem with prequels is no matter how radical a tangent you set out your stall, you’re duty bound to eventually converge plot points in order to join up with the original narrative. No more so is this evident than in ORIGIN OF EVIL. That’s not to say director Flanagan doesn’t lead us on a merrily entertaining and determinedly nostalgic visual dance beforehand - at least until the final reel that is.
Although shot digitally, Flanagan works hard to achieve (with some degree of success) a 70’s/early 80’s vibe. Utilising the classic Universal Studios logo and a retro-styled title card for starters, we are also treated to reel change cigarette burns, and DP Michael Fimognari’s camera zestily zooming in and out with an antique set of lenses which infuse candle light and sunset with a warm hazy palette mostly absent from current genre offerings.
There is also further warmth generated by a trio of fine performances from the three female leads. Lulu Wilson in particular is a revelation as little Doris, who undergoes a startling character transformation courtesy of Doug Jones’ demonic ghoul with chilling effect.
Director Flanagan admirably holds out for close on 40 minutes before unleashing his first big sting jump scare sound effect – a notable achievement given today’s multiplex template - instead wisely opting for ambient sound design and judicious scoring to achieve sustainable unease. Of course given the PG-13 brief of the franchise, he is somewhat hampered as to how far to push the scares and physical threat when necessity dictates in the final reel. And it’s here where the film stumbles when the inevitable haunted house/possession clichés are rolled out stage left, right, along the walls and up on the ceiling. Think a mishmash of elements from POLTERGEIST and THE EXORCIST filtered through a PG-13 gauze, with ET’s Henry Thomas wearing the white collar of the heroic priest. (And yes that is an intentional nod to THE EXORCIST’s iconic poster image when he pauses outside the Zander house).
If you’ve seen OUIJA (2014) you’ll already know the respective fates of the three Zander women. (I watched the original on Netflix by way of prior homework the night before). There are still some loose ends which don’t quite tie-up when you review the events of the first film, and the final jump scare before the credit roll rings hollow (even if it just might be a homage to THE EXORCIST III). Oh yes, and if you reading the end-credits and begin wondering where was Lin Shaye, she turns up in a very brief post-credit coda which does link up nicely with the first instalment and proves just what a good sport she is.
Extras: Deleted scenes, x3 making of featurettes, director commentary.
***(out of 5*)