Silver Screen: Ouija *
Do kids actually play with Ouija boards anymore?
It certainly seems improbable. Why sit in a circle while your least-trustworthy friend slowly spells out fake messages from a ghost on a piece of cardboard that’s not even connected to the internet? Surely there’s an app that can communicate with the dead more expediently. (AppArition?) Besides, whatever you conjure from cardboard can’t be scarier than the ego monsters lurking on Tinder.
As children, best pals Laine (Olivia Cooke) and Debbie (Shelley Hennig) liked to tinker with everyone’s favorite mass-produced portal to the great beyond. A decade or so later Debbie inexplicably hangs herself after breaking out an old Ouija board in a bout of nostalgia. Laine refuses to believe Debbie committed suicide and recruits some friends to contact her dead friend and learn the truth using the board they found in her room— but Debbie’s not the only spirit skulking around the house.
The best scene in Ouija is simultaneously its scariest, funniest, most tedious, and most relatable. At last Laine has gathered her crew— including her boyfriend (Daren Kagasoff), her little sister (Ana Coto), Debbie’s ex-dude (Douglas Smith)— and everyone puts their fingers on the Ouija planchette. Everyone is skeptical, a little bored. When the game piece begins to slide back and forth to answer questions, they argue among each other (“You’re moving it!” “I am not, it’s you moving it!”) and start jumping at every rasping tree branch and creaking floorboard. It’s the movie’s one moment of verisimilitude, a truly accurate portrayal of playing the game that also unfortunately serves as a reminder of just how dull a Ouija board becomes after fifteen minutes.
Ouija does surprisingly little nudging and winking. Director and cowriter Stiles White chooses to play it totally straight, which might have been a valid choice if the movie ever had a moment approaching real horror, or real anything. It’s almost defiantly programmatic, with dialogue that sounds as if it were written by a computer program and a cast of actors who all look like they’re cresting thirty but playing seventeen. It’s not a grungy, enjoyably sloppy cheapness; Ouija’s aesthetic is far less do-it-yourself-punk than it is plastic Walmart knockoff. Perhaps that’s no surprise given that White is also partly responsible for 2005’s Boogeyman, easily one of the blandest and most indistinguishable horror movies ever made.
The chances that a movie about a Ouija board was going to be good were pretty low, but lesser premises have spawned better movies. The Ouija board could potentially function as more of a plot device for an otherwise free-standing horror movie (think of the board featured briefly in the first Paranormal Activity). But, perhaps by contractual obligation with Parker Brothers, the game board remains prominent throughout. It’s the only way to conjure a ghost and the only way to get rid of one, which means that even if the story could develop some momentum, which it never does, it would have to halt so that everyone could stop and sit down and watch a piece of plastic move around slowly of its own accord.
White and Snowden spend a fair amount of time focusing on the rules of Ouija— who knew there were rules?— yet they rarely adhere to them. Supposedly a ghost is rendered powerless if the players follow these rules, like always saying “Goodbye” when a session is done, but they’re broken constantly with no recourse. It’s never clear exactly how the ghosts are possessing and killing their victims. Since we don’t know how this is supposed to work, we don’t know how the characters might prevent it from happening again, which drains the handful of “scary” sequences of any suspense and makes the deaths feel both inevitable and arbitrary.
Terrible as it is, Ouija is cheap enough to likely turn a profit, which opens up the possibility of a sequel. My humble suggestion: a Monopoly board that can actually send you to jail. Spooky.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.