Review: “Ouija”

At the risk of sounding condescending, I have a tendency to mock those that believe in silly things. When I was younger, I was the one who would move the Ouija board slider to mess with my more gullible friends, as my cynical nature quickly took over as soon as we gathered around that board. I simply couldn’t help myself; it was just too easy. If anything, my cynicism regarding the so called “spirit world” has increased as I’ve grown older.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a good ghost movie, but this week’s succinctly titled “Ouija” was more than I could handle. It was hard not to roll my eyes when the skeptic characters, 15 seconds after huddling around the Ouija board, were all of a sudden believers. Where are the logical ones, the ones who refuse to believe such nonsense?

Although horror movie rules dictate that they will ultimately be wrong for being non-believers, a decent representation would have been nice. At a short 89 minutes, however, I suppose such narrative and character arcs are too much to ask for. But even with my cynicism removed from the rest of the product, “Ouija” just doesn’t cut it. It’s not scary or interesting, the make-up and effects are subpar and the dialogue is ridiculous.

The very thin plot follows a young woman named Laine (Olivia Cooke) whose friend has just seemingly committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. She quickly learns that, just prior to her death, her friend had just used a Ouija board alone, which is against the rules if you want to safely contact the spirit world. A believer herself, she and a group of friends decide to huddle around the Ouija board at night in the house her friend died in to see if they can summon her spirit and uncover the truth surrounding her death.

Even with the thin plot, the events leading up to that girl’s death set the stage for a promising ghost movie. For example, backgrounds are prominent in the opening shots and though the girl is front and center, the eyes are drawn behind her. It sets a mood by cinematically implying something may happen, but then it doesn’t. It toys with perspective and viewer expectation in a way that too many horror films fail to do. Even when her fate ultimately befalls her, nothing much is shown, allowing the imagination to conjure up whatever horror she sees in her final moments. It’s heightened tension at its finest.

Unfortunately, this is all within the first five or so minutes of “Ouija,” the rest of it succumbing to a bland story and horror cliches, like slowly opening doors and reflections in the mirror that stopped being scary years ago and don’t find themselves reinvigorated here. The spirits here, like so many that came before, spend more time with mild trickery than actually getting the job done. One must wonder what the mentality is behind turning the oven on when, if they can already manipulate real world objects, they could easily do something much more effective. A gas leak explosion, perhaps?

Where “Ouija” ultimately falters, though, isn’t in its narrative absurdities, but in its abundance of jump scares, effective only in the sense that they’ll startle your heart to the point of racing rather than building to it and earning it. It’s the kind of scares where someone in the other room inexplicably and unintentionally sneaks up behind their friend with ninja-like stealth skills, a scare intended only for an audience dumb enough to fall for such lazy tricks. But I suppose the filmmakers had to try to spice things up somehow. If it weren’t for those occasional loud jump scares, I’m pretty sure I would have fallen asleep.

Even still, those tricks are preferable to the ghostly presences the audience is eventually introduced to. They look incredibly silly and they’re seen in such generic horror movie locations that they would be hard to take very seriously anyway. The characters venture into dusty attics, cluttered basements and even a psychiatric ward. One gets the feeling that the only reason they don’t end up in a cemetery is because the Ouija rules expressly forbid it.

Simply put, “Ouija” is ill-conceived from top to bottom, rarely showing that it has any idea what makes a good horror movie. It’s very easy to make fun of those who think a mass manufactured Hasbro game has any supernatural properties to it, but you can’t blame those people for looking for some cheap thrills. The movie based on it wishes it could muster as much.