Don’t be afraid, familiarity with Stiles White’s 2014 horror offering “Ouija” isn’t required to enjoy Mike Flanagan’s inventive and often flat-out horrifying prequel, “Ouija: Origin of Evil.” While Flanagan, who previously helmed the chiller “Oculus” and the well-received festival hit “Hush,” builds in some necessary links between the two films, his “Ouija” happily exists as its own standalone feature — albeit one kitted out with a seemingly never-ending slew of nods to the rest of the genre.
Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard wear their influences on their sleeves, offering up a veritable cornucopia of horror tricks and tropes that mostly succeed on their own, and “Ouija” giddily zips between haunted house thriller, exorcism drama and skillful period piece, all wrapped up in a neat and terrifying little bow.
“Ouija” and its characters are forced to wrestle with the nature of belief at every turn — belief in “the spirit world,” their faith, their family, even that damn board game — and Flanagan and Howard do an impressive job delivering those themes without hitting anyone over the head with them. The prequel follows the Zander family, including fortune-telling mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser, excellent as ever), along with daughters Lena (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), smartly building in supernatural elements that do wonders to push along the film’s appropriately icky vibe.
Despite opening the film with a big, showy sequence that niftily pulls the audience into the world of Alice’s home-spun seances — done around her kitchen table, while both Lena and Doris participate in what soon reveals itself to be a massive scam — Reaser roots her performance in reality, and her Alice is less compelled by spooky and creepy moments than the horrors present in her everyday life, like a dead husband and a couple of kiddos she feels are slipping away.
Although Alice traffics in the paranormal, she’s actually not a very big believer in ghosts or spirits, and even when teenager Lena engages in a little Ouija board action with her pals, she doesn’t seem too sold on the kind of stuff that literally puts food on their table. Doris, however, is a different story. When Alice brings home a Ouija board to add to her work props, Doris takes to it almost immediately, convinced she can communicate with her deceased father. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly who she conjures up.
Once Doris takes center stage, the big-eyed and cherub-faced Wilson unleashes an all-timer of a creepy kid performance, toeing the line between beleaguered innocent and vessel of pure evil with unnerving results. Flanagan doesn’t shy away from showing off some nightmarish images — and, no, “Ouija” isn’t just cheap jump scares and loud noises, it really works to surprise its audience — and Wilson is tasked with reacting to and carrying many of them, yet her work alone is sufficiently freaky. With just a flick of her eyes or a curl of her mouth, her Doris delivers terror to spare, and by the time Wilson works her way into a full-blown monologue that describes the act of strangling someone to death, her transformation is complete and complex.
As Doris plunges deeper into darkness, Flanagan’s film layers on the scares in increasingly inventive ways, picking and choosing his way through some of the genre’s most recognizable tropes and delivering his own frightfest in the process. From dark figures lurking just out of frame, pure body horror, dreams within dreams, actual demons, shifting dimensions, old school torture and even a generous helping of creepy dolls, “Ouija” has something for everyone, and that’s to say nothing of the hardcore exorcism plot — complete with Henry Thomas as a uncomfortably sexy priest at the girls’ Catholic school — that takes hold during the film’s last half.
If anything, Flangan attempts too much in his ambitious outing, eventually offering up an exposition-heavy explanation for what’s unfolding in the Zander home that’s deserving of its own feature — and not even a horror feature at that, since the “big twist” would work just as well as a nail-biting historical drama. But it doesn’t cleanly tie back into the rest of the chilling twists he’s so ably pulled together. “Ouija” is genuinely frightening and smart, the rare horror prequel able to stand on its own merits and deliver a full-bodied story that succeeds without any previous knowledge or trappings. However, in outfitting this particular haunted house with monsters to spare, Flanagan loses the thread of what’s really scary: Everything we can’t see.
“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is in theaters on Friday, October 21.