There were few reasons to be optimistic for "Ouija: Origin of Evil," a prequel to the occasionally effective, mostly generic 2014 film and a glorified advertisement for Hasbro's spooky board game/quasi-spiritual device. Perhaps sensing low expectations, writer/director Mike Flanagan (who helmed the solid thriller "Hush" earlier this year) borrows more from his inspirations ("The Exorcist," "The Changeling," "Poltergeist") and his earlier film "Oculus" than from the creaky framework of the original film. Rather than merely clearing a low bar, the new "Ouija" plays like the kind of old-fashioned, atmospheric chiller that this summer's "The Conjuring 2" tried and failed to be.
Set in 1967, the film concerns Alice Zeller (Elizabeth Reaser), a fortune teller raising teenage Lina (Annalise Basso) and young Doris (Lulu Wilson) following the death of her husband in a car accident. In an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Ouija boards, Alice purchases one, only to find that Doris actually can communicate with the dead (including her deceased father) with the board. She's thrilled, but Lina and friendly priest Tom (Henry Thomas, as empathetic here as he was as a boy in "E.T.") suspect a more malevolent force has taken hold of her.
This being a horror movie, of course one has, but much of the pleasure in "Origin of Evil" comes from Flanagan's patience in letting on that something's wrong. There are a few fun fakeouts (an initial spiritual appearance is just the daughters helping mom with a seance) and slight hints of spiritual phenomena (the board's planchette moving on its own when no one is around), but Flanagan takes more time fleshing out the relationships of the three primary characters, suggesting a normal, caring family and a downright warm relationship between siblings that's been disrupted by the death of a family member. Basso in particular walks a fine line between teenage rebellion and wise-beyond-her-years understanding that her mother is in a difficult place.
When the haunting does start, what's actually behind it is fairly banal, and the film is ultimately beholden to the creaky mythology of the original film. But Flanagan takes a novel approach to the material by rooting his technique largely in '70s-era style.
Some of the touches are mere Easter eggs for film buffs (fake reel-change marks for a film that's being projected digitally, '60s set and costume design/colors), but others give Flanagan real opportunity to play with space, like a split-diopter shot that frames a possessed Doris in the foreground, Lina in the background, close enough to recognize that something is wrong with her sister but removed enough to not recognize how dire the situation is.
By the time the full-on horror starts, Flanagan lays off the shock cuts of modern horror and goes for in-camera effects and use of negative space, allowing us to just barely catch what's going to happen before it happens. He's a director who enjoys playing with perspective, in what we can and can't see and hear, and one who knows when one approach is called for over another.
"Ouija: Origin of Evil" is a modest horror film rather than a grand achievement, and one hopes that Flanagan will get something more promising than another studio assignment to gussy up next time (his "Before I Wake" is still stuck in post-production hell following the bankruptcy of Relativity Media). But what separates Flanagan from his lesser contemporaries, even in a minor film, is his ability to take his characters seriously as people rather than dominoes waiting to be knocked over; it's genuinely upsetting to watch a mother and daughter try and fail to make sense of what's happened to a family member, especially after we've taken the time to get to know them (this is another advantage the film has over "The Conjuring" films). Like "Oculus" before it, Flanagan's new film knows that true horror is less what goes bump in the night and more the feeling of helplessness to stop it, especially when the source is someone close to you.