This is a rare event for me, to watch a prequel to a movie I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see. The original OUIJA from 2014 was a PG-13 horror movie co-produced by ghost-merchants Blumhouse and remakers Platinum Dunes, “based on Ouija by Hasbro.” It’s the same writers as KNOWING, which could be a plus, but I didn’t know that until just now. So it didn’t seem like a movie for me, and nobody told me otherwise.
But two years later I remember seeing the trailer for the prequel before some other horror movie and talking with my friend about it actually looking good. It’s a period piece set in 1967, with a real nice look to it courtesy of cinematographer Michael Fimognari (FAST COLOR) and this time it’s directed by Mike Flanagan – I’m not sure if I’d seen anything by him yet, but I’d heard good things about OCULUS. And since then I’ve seen ABSENTIA, HUSH and GERALD’S GAME – all quite good – and the 2018 made-for-Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House convinced me that he is a legit Master of Horror for our age, even before he knocked my socks off with DOCTOR SLEEP. So it’s cool to go back and catch up on this one and realize how much of a rough draft it was for Hill House (even more than ABSENTIA). It’s got the scary old house (smaller and suburban, though), the psychic gift passed through generations, the themes of trauma and loss, the period detail, and of course the freaky ass Mike Flanagan ghosts. (Flanaghosts?)
In the opening scene it took me a minute to recognize them both, but there were already two actresses who would later be stars of Hill House. Elizabeth Reaser (Shirley Crain) stars as fraudulent fortune teller Alice Zander, and in that scene she’s doing a reading for a blond-wigged Kate Siegel (Theodora Crain). We’ll quickly see that her youngest daughter Doris is played by Lulu Wilson (young Shirley Crain), and her reverend/teacher is Henry Thomas (young Hugh Crain), and it’s also very obvious that Flanagan is using the same composer, the Newton Brothers. Cinematographer Fimognari, co-writer Jeff Howard, production designer Patricio M. Farrell and several other behind-the-scenes people also returned for Hill House.
Alice is a widow, in danger of losing her house, paying the bills by following in her mother’s footsteps as a fortune teller, justifying the deception as a way to help people cope with loss. I like how it opens on a scary seance scene and then deconstructs how it was done as she resets all the equipment that shakes the table, etc., and as her daughters Doris and teenage Lina (Annalise Basso, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) come out of their hiding places.
Lina seems unhappy with the family business, and the bullshit seems to follow her around because when she goes to a party everybody decides to use a Oujia board, and she’s annoyed that they believe in it. The boards are all the rage, so Alice decides to pick one up (in cool retro box) to incorporate into the act – she puts magnets in the planchette (this is one of the few movies to use the word planchette and to allow me to use it in a review) and on her knees to control it. But when Doris is alone with it she tries to talk to her dad and the Crazy Supernatural Shit commences. One of my favorites is when Alice tries to talk to the board downstairs and upstairs in the bedroom Doris, in some kind of trance, speaks the answers to her questions. Only hearing her sister’s side of the conversation, Lina knows Doris is being weird but doesn’t figure out what’s going on.
Thomas is a Flanagan regular now, and always a welcome presence in any movie. His character Father Tom is a good principal and caring man who starts to recognize the craziness of the shit and takes up Alice on an offered seance as an excuse to come investigate at the house. He’s one of those characters who’s so nice that you start thinking, “Ah, fuck, he must be a child molester or something.” Perhaps because of another role I’ve seen him in. But this time he’s clean, I swear.
I’m not sure what Flanagan has been through to make him so obsessed with the topic of loss, but he’s really good at it. Alice has been keeping it together for the kids after the death of her husband, but seeing evidence of real ghosts brings out the desperation in her. She needs to believe he still exists in some form, just like her clients did. They would fall for her far-fetched scenarios because they so badly wanted to be feel they were talking to their loved one. I said the opening seance was “scary” but the real Flanagan-ness of that scene is that it’s more emotional than scary. Sam Anderson (Justified) gives a really raw performance as this guy, breaking down as he thinks he’s talking to his late wife, needing badly to tell her what he didn’t tell her. When he says he’s sorry it’s so loaded, you don’t know if it’s a normal apology or if he did something seriously fucked up… it feels a little like you’re intruding on someone’s personal business you don’t really want to know about.
And it’s so well directed, including in subtle ways. Like when Alice first sees the Ouija board working for real she jumps up out of her chair and backs away from the table. She’s wearing a skirt and Flanagan shoots her in full, so we can see her bare knees and be reminded of the magnet trick that turns out to not be necessary.
It also just looks amazing. That’s partly the design: the period outfits, hair dos and furnishings. Nice style, nice colors. And you now Flanagan loves it because he also goes for the movie nerd attention to detail, using an old Universal logo, even putting cigarette burns where the reel changes would be if there were such a thing as reels anymore.
And there are some just straight up cool shots, like when somebody spins the board around and the camera stays exactly lined up with it. I looked it up and it was shot digitally, but I was convinced it was film because it has such a gorgeous cinematic look to it. Maybe it’s the lenses he uses? There are a couple shots where they’re just talking while driving around in the car and it just made me think, “Ah. Cinema.”
I think I need that stuff for the Ghosty Shit to work on me, but Flanagan is highly skilled at the Ghosty shit. There are plenty creepy ass white eye, stretchy mouth, crawling on the ceiling, bizarre apparition freakouts here. Maybe my favorite one was just Doris making a crazy monster face unnoticed behind someone, and I think the secret to it is that it’s not where that shot is supposed to go. It’s just real quick all the sudden in the middle of the scene, no loud noises or anything, just the normal shot that belongs in a normal scene except she’s doing a crazy thing for a second. It’s that perfectly off timing, like Thelonious Monk.
Also, the character of Doris plus the performance by Wilson (who recently starred in that movie BECKY and was Riker’s daughter on Star Trek: Picard) make for an above average evil-and/or-haunted child character. Instead of going into standard creep-out modes she’s got this darkly funny naivete as she says things like, “I let her use my hand!” (after writing pages of detailed WWII memoirs in Polish). And there’s an equally horrifying and funny scene where, apropos of nothing, she gives Lina’s boyfriend (Parker Mack, DIVERGENT) a long and vivid first person account of what it feels like to be strangled to death. Kind of like a less cute version of Jonathan Lipnicki in JERRY MAGUIRE.
There’s no way to know, but I think not knowing anything about the first OUIJA might’ve been a plus. It turns out we are (spoiler I guess?) watching the origins of a spirit who speaks through the board in part 1, and of a living character originally played by Lin Shaye. The ending feels a little anticlimactic as it is, but I think it would be moreso if I came in thinking, “Okay, so tell me where this ghost came from.”
I suppose people also don’t like the ending to Hill House – honestly I don’t remember that much about it. I enjoyed the flight so much it only had to land somewhere near the runway. ORIGIN OF EVIL is a humbler, more compact version. I prefer the sprawling epic, but this is a nice little treat. And it’s a prequel to a poorly reviewed Hasbro movie! I really respect when things are better than they need to be.