“Ouija” fails to conjure more than a giggle

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Movies based on board games are awful. With the occasional exception of a film like “Clue,” the majority of stories based on board games become “Dungeons and Dragons” or “Battleship.” Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that I walked into “Ouija” with a heady dose of cautious skepticism.

“Ouija” didn’t disappoint. It’s awful in all the wrong ways, and even a few of the right ones.

Coming from first-time director Stiles White, “Ouija” focuses around — what else — a group of teens who accidentally summon ghosts with the eponymous Hasbro toy. The instigating factor for their summoning is the apparent suicide of Debbie (Shelley Hennig). Intending to ask Debbie about whether her death could have been prevented, Laine (Olivia Cooke) and her buddies unwittingly stumble onto the spirit that tormented their late friend. From this point, writers Stiles White and Juliet Snowden take the audience on a thrill ride so predictable that the viewer is left feeling like Nostradamus. The plot feels forced at the best of times, and like a complete copy of other much better films (see: “The Ring”) at the worst. Important moments in the narrative feel too convenient, setting up the next scene as though the audience has no ability to question why the dining room table was arranged so perfectly for a seance.

The problems that the plot encounters are made all the worse knowing that they make the film farcical. Even minor points of interest become darkly hilarious when put under the slightest bit of scrutiny. Only a few minutes into the film, after Debbie hangs herself using Christmas lights she keeps in her room, her family holds a wake. The punchline? They hold the wake in the same house she was found dead, only feet from the sight of her death. In the same scene, Laine walks into Debbie’s room hoping to feel closer to her friend, passing by the same Christmas lights used to hang her friend. Did her parents just decide to keep the murder-lights? Are those lights too expensive to buy new ones? Moments like these just make the movie silly.

Scene planning and composition aside, the writing in “Ouija” is so bad as to achieve levels of hilarity. Desperate to find absolution for the death of her friend, Laine tells the rest of the gang that she needs to contact Debbie. At this point her boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff) reminds her that dead people can’t talk to the living, and she should just learn to move on. The scene carries on like this for at least two minutes, with the couple firing back and forth that they need to contact Debbie, oh, but they can’t possibly talk to someone who’s died. Foreshadowing moments like these carry all the subtlety of a Mack truck charging headlong at your face with its headlights on and its horn blaring in your ears.

Late in the movie, there is also a twist that is intended to surprise and shock the audience. Instead, the Shyamalan-esque third act of the film feels unnecessary and out of place in what had been a movie that previously pulled no punches. Too bad though, because as is, the movie seems to run at least 15 minutes too long. Which is horrifying, considering the film only runs for 89 minutes.

Setting aside the laughable plot, writing and everything else, “Ouija” shows itself as capable of all the acting chops present in an elementary school play. Every character in the film — aside from being cast well above the intended high school age — reacts about as emotionally to all of their friends dying as if they were popping quaaludes like candy. Line delivery just seems to be flat and stunted, making characters seem awkward-verging-on-sociopathic.

On top of all the problems “Ouija” faces, it is also made to suffer from a deep misunderstanding of how real horror works. Rather than establish a looming sense of dread in every scene, allowing the audience to make a majority of the fear within their own minds, White seems content with repeatedly jump-scaring the audience into submission — not just once either, but smacking the viewer over the head with startling orchestra strings and flashes of action so much that they will see stars.

While unintentionally amusing at times, “Ouija” fails to be scary enough or badly amusing
enough to actually be worth the price of admission (despite producer Michael Bay’s best efforts). If anybody is looking for a good horror flick to kick off Halloween and the inevitable ouija board seances that entails, stick to “The Exorcist.” Not only does that movie kick ass, but it’s a better advertisement for the board game than this highly meh film.

Rating: 1 star

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