Ouija offers a few genuine scares. But mostly, it raises lots of interesting questions about Hollywood's odd and ongoing affection for turning board games and other random pieces of intellectual property into movies.
Granted, as Hasbro-spawned movies go, this low-budget teen thriller makes a lot more sense than the bloated Battleship, which was made for everyone — Rihanna fans! Liam Neeson fans! Action-movie fans! Alien-invasion conspirators! — and yet resonated with few. (Hasbro's shining moment will always be, of course, Clue.)
However, Ouija's blandly attractive cast (plucked from genre-appropriate TV shows: Bates Motel's Olivia Cooke; Teen Wolf's Shelley Hennig, The Secret Life of an American Teenager's Daren Kagasoff) and its PG-13 rating turn the movie into generic horror with no jagged edges. Plus, the pre-Halloween release means another big-screen spook show for anyone who's already passed the time with Annabelle and Dracula Untold — but may not be adventurous enough to seek out The Guest.
If you've ever seen a horror movie before, this review contains no spoilers. If you're the young lass who was seated next to me and screamed bloody murder at every cheap gotcha moment, please stop reading this and go watch a legit scary movie like The Exorcist, and perhaps have a think about why it's rude to completely cover your face for the duration of a movie while shrieking "What's happening? What's happening? Oh! My! God! What's happening?" over and over. Enduring that for 90 minutes was more nightmarish than anything that transpired onscreen.
And here, a pun must be made, for Ouija is haunted not just by malevolent spirits conjured up by you-know-which board game, but also by the ghosts of many, many horror films past. Even the recent past: Annabelle's trick of cranking up the stove while nobody's around gets a do-over here. There are obviously shades of the original trashy Ouija movie, the Tawny-Kitaen-acting-seminar Witchboard — as well as films like Final Destination, The Amityville Horror, Stir of Echoes, and The Sixth Sense (which Ouija co-writer and director Stiles White worked on as part of the Stan Winston Studio special effects crew).
This movie also recycles ideas from Scream. It kills off the pretty, sympathetic blonde in the first five minutes (hat-tip to Psycho, inventor of that shit), and it focuses on kids whose lives lack any parental supervision whatsoever. Like Ghostface target Sidney in Scream, Laine, the lead in Ouija, has a dad who zips off on a business trip just hours after his daughter has experienced the tragic loss of a classmate. No wonder she turns to that creepy old planchette for comfort. The only adults in Ouija who display any concern — even as teens begin expiring in gruesome ways — are the high school's totally uncool grief counselor, and Laine's "Nona," whose relationship to Laine and her sister, Sarah, is never really explained. Is she their housekeeper? Their aging nanny? A vaguely "ethnic" character whose hinted-at knowledge of the spirit world never goes beyond advice like "You should not go seeking answers from the dead"?
Once you unleash the logic police on Ouija the movie, it's all over. Like many horror-film characters, the kids behave in ways that serve only to propel the plot from fright to fright. Oh, we summoned a presence that's probably going to cross over from purgatory and cause us real-world harm? Let's shuffle on back to the haunted house and poke around in the dusty attic, where grimy old dolls (and worse) are lurking … and then, a few scenes later, let's go again, but this time why don't we explore the dark, terrifying basement? (Side note: despite Ouija's penchant for "menacing" low-angle shots and dim lighting, the rest of the house is clearly gorgeous, all gleaming wood trim and vintage-y wallpaper. Apparently Beetlejuice was right and ghosts like to keep their turf renovation-free.)
There's no need to dig much deeper into Ouija's story. Not only is it obvious what a movie called Ouija is about (paging Captain Howdy), it shows its entire hand in the trailer. The script is so lazy that it reveals the key point of how the board turns up in the first place via a convenient found-footage video that might as well be tagged "Blatant Exposition." It also dares to replace one of the horror genre's go-to tropes — when someone with a demon problem or whatever consults a book, preferably ancient and leatherbound, to figure out WTF to do — with a quick Google sesh. Where's the fun in that?
Actually, where's the fun at all? Ouija takes itself way too seriously — especially considering its source material is a game made out of cardboard and plastic — though it does deliver a few decent jolts, as well as a handful of surprises.