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Ouija (2014)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

OUIJA (2014)

Starring: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Bianca Santos, Douglas Smith, Shelley Hennig

Written By: Juliette Snowden, Stiles White Directed By: Stiles White

The Short Version

The classic board game – or oracle, if you prefer – finally gets its day on the silver screen.

Amazingly, the director manages to leap the hurdle of PG-13 rating without sacrificing quality.

The scares are well timed and well executed.

It’s even possible to care about the lead characters!

Take Ouija for what it is, and there’s some real fun to be had here; it’s certainly worth the time to find out.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CO-JACK.

An easy, palatable blend that simply works for what it is.


Pairs Well With...

SCHLITZ.

Not that these kids are old enough to drink, but if they were to sneak some beers, their respective allowances can afford something better than the standard 30 pack of Lite.

“HI FRIEND.”


Surprised as I was when I first heard that a movie based on the classic Hasbro-made Ouija board was being made, it took only a moment for me to instead become surprised that it hadn’t been made long before.  (For the big screen, I mean; it had been done for the small screen market, but that's not quite the same.) A board “game” designed to communicate with the spirit world?  How much more of a readymade horror movie concept can one get?  And so I counted myself as excited by the prospect from the get-go.

But then came the news that Michael Bay was one of the producers, and that – even worse – Ouija would be getting a PG-13 rating.  Is there anything as generally toxic to the success of a horror flick than the curse of the PG-13 rating?  My Magic 8 Ball says “no.”

And yet, for every rule, there is an exception, and much to my very pleasant surprise, Ouija has proven to be one of those incredibly rare exceptions.  Director Stiles White has found that oh-so-elusive sweet spot through which effective thrills are delivered while holding down the gore, and in doing so, he’s established the foundation for a potential franchise, should the Powers That Be choose to go there.

Ouija draws its base from the classic 80s mold: impossibly wealthy white high school students (most of whom could really pass for school age this time around) with absentee parents and one friend of color.  Original or progressive?  Hardly, but the familiar ground allows the audience an easy “in” the movie’s world, and in a genre so heavily steeped in formula, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Here, we learn that Debbie (Shelley Hennig, “Teen Wolf”) and Laine (Olivia Cooke, “Bates Motel”) have been BFFs like, forever, and that way back when they were small children, they amused themselves with a Ouija board.  Flash forward to the later days of high school, and we find a rather depressed Debbie blowing off every opportunity she has to leave the house, even for a night out with Laine.  Instead, she’s burning an old Ouija board in the fireplace… only to find it waiting for her , unscathed, when she returns upstairs to her bedroom.  Moments later, Debbie is dead: hanging from a string of holiday style lights that had only recently been providing a festive glow to her room.

Laine and the rest of Debbie’s friends are, of course, devastated, but when Lane finds an old Ouija board in Debbie’s closet, she remembers their childhood games and wonders if maybe, just maybe, she and the rest of their circle can use the board to properly say goodbye to her best friend.

Who thinks this is going to end well for them?  Anyone?  Yeah, thought so…

And yet, predictable though that particular answer (and some others) may be, Ouija packs a fair number of surprises, or at least twists that one doesn’t necessarily see coming from a thousand miles away.  In doing so, it stays true enough to formula to play well in its formula-driven genre sandbox, but does enough cool stuff to pull away from the pack and be memorable in its own right.  A new paradigm?  I won’t go that far (not nearly; the classic derivations are obvious), but Ouija does provide some life and hope to a genre in one of its “on the ropes” periods in terms of decent big screen representation.

For one thing, the story takes the time to introduce and develop its primary characters and the relationships that the secondary and tertiary strings have to them.  When Debbie dies, time is taken to show Laine and her circle of friends and family actually grieving in a meaningful way, firmly establishing the deep connection that is the very axis upon which the movie’s plot turns.  By showing how the characters care for each other, Ouija makes it that much easier for the audience to care about them, which in turns make the horrible things that happen to them that much more impactful.  This is especially key for a PG-13 film such as Ouija, where one can’t rely on heavy blood and gore to deliver the thrills and the chills and the screams.  (Even the least interesting character’s demise provides some measure of feeling.)

This brings us to the direction, which, as noted, does a great job of working around and past its rating handicap.  Old school “boo!” type scares are, amazingly enough, scary more often than not, and the off camera “suggestive” horror makes its suggestions very well indeed.  And what does show up directly on screen more often than not has a real visceral impact, featuring imagery that’s disturbing by its very nature without necessarily crossing a gore line.  (Let’s face it: sewn-shut lips are just plain creepy.  End of story.)  Tack on decently constructed visual effects and spot-on timing, and the result is a horror winner.

Speaking of winners, the cast does a good job overall; no one stinks up the place (never a guarantee in elimination horror), and the ones who need to have the most presence do.  Special kudos go out to Olivia Cooke, whose performance makes Laine not just a sympathetic character for the audience, but indeed a real one whose actions always seem natural and never forced (whether or not “good judgment” is in play; this is, after all, a horror movie).  Also worthy of note is Lin Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street), whose portrayal of the informative character of Paulina Zander brings to mind some “Twin Peaks” overtones that work very well indeed.

This isn’t to say that Ouija is without its share of problems, mind.  There are subplots that go nowhere (the mystery boyfriend in the street racer, for example), the token nonwhite character (Bianca Santos, “Happyland”) is very obviously the token nonwhite character (she’s the only one who needs a job; waitress, of course), and some of the formula elements, while expected – I’m looking at you, absentee parents with apparently unlimited incomes – still stand out like neon sore thumbs, just to start off the list.  But for those willing to accept Ouija for what it is – a genre flick – the sins are easy enough to overlook for the sake of the fun that shows up in their wake.  With that in mind, if one walks in expecting a bad movie, it’s easy enough to see what one was looking for, just as it’s easy to be disappointed if one walks in with overly high expectations.  But go in with the proper horror flick attitude, and yeah; there’s a franchise in the making here.

Bottom line, take it for what it is, and Ouija is a surprisingly good horror movie that manages to hurdle past the obstacle of a PG-13 rating.  It’s worth seeing on the big screen, and for genre fans, also worth the consideration on home video when that time comes around.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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