After doing rigorous testing, i.e., sitting through “Ouija”, we can now confirm that you can, in fact, jump out of your seat with fear and roll your eyes at the same time. This film is effectively scary, filled with plenty of jump moments and a few slow-burning scenes, but the scares aren’t enough to balance the poor writing and lack of imagination.
We can’t help but wonder what movie would have resulted had a version from Marti Noxon (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the underrated “Fright Night” remake) actually made it to the screen. She was attached to the script, but this Hasbro-produced film shuffled through a number of writers and filmmakers before finally landing on first-time director Stiles White, who wrote the script with Juliet Snowden. The pair had previously worked together on critical disasters “The Possession,” “Knowing” and “Boogeyman.” But instead of Noxon’s trademark wit which could have made a board game movie more watchable, we get an entirely serious film that spends 90 minutes making us fear something you can buy at Toys “R” Us, without a moment of humor.
“Ouija” begins with best friends Laine and Debbie as kids, playing with the titular product. They share the rules with the audience: you can never play alone, you can’t play in a graveyard and you must always say goodbye. When things get a little too creepy for the girls, they remind us “it’s only a game.” Flash forward to the present, where Laine (Olivia Cooke) and Debbie (Shelley Hennig) are high schoolers and still inseparable. That is, until Debbie dies mysteriously after playing with a Ouija board, and Laine is left looking for answers. Debbie’s family leaves town for an indeterminate period of time, and Laine is left to watch over the home where her best friend died. She convinces her rebellious sister Sarah (Ana Coto), boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), friend Isabel (Bianca Santos) and Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) to join her as she uses Debbie’s Ouija board to contact her departed friend for some closure. Unsurprisingly, the teens connect with something otherworldly that begins to haunt them.
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There’s one random scene where the camera shows us the perspective of the spirit, which is interesting, but the technique is never revisited and seems like a fluke. Overall, Stiles’ direction, David Emmerich’s cinematography and Anton Sanko’s string-filled score don’t contribute to an overall sense of dread; instead, we’re given an adequate number of briefly terrifying moments broken up by dialogue delivered by mopey teens. Many of the characters’ issues could have been solved if adults were remotely present. We get a brief glimpse of Laine and Sarah’s father before he heads out of town, but the other teens’ parents aren’t around to care that they’re spending their evenings contacting the dead. Our parents wouldn’t let us play with Ouija boards, and look how well we turned out (we’re alive, at least).
As a multi-million dollar marketing campaign (which is basically what the Hasbro films like “Battleship” and the Transformers and G.I. Joe series amount to), “Ouija” seems less than effective. After sitting through the film, why would you spend $19.99 to contact evil spirits and watch your friends die? It’s marginally more worthwhile as a film but brings nothing interesting to the table. Ouija boards are a fixture in horror movies, but are rarely the sole focus. Here the boards are at the center —and proclaimed as such in an overly ominous title sequence— but giving the toy a few more scenes than they’d merit elsewhere brings nothing to the film. Other than the constant presence of the board, there’s nothing particularly special about “Ouija.” The standard ghost/evil spirit tropes are all present, and there are few surprises (other than the jump scenes’ efficacy). With its young protagonists and PG-13 rating, “Ouija” is clearly aiming for teens as its intended audience, and hopefully they haven’t seen enough horror movies to realize how bland this one is. [C]