REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/ For 21st Century Media
Although Ouija boards date back to the Song Dynasty in 12th century China, they were not commercially available in the United States until 1890. Originally, they were introduced here as a Victorian parlor game, devoid of any connections to the supernatural hocus pocus. It was only decades later that the American spiritualist, Pearl Curran, propounded the use of Ouija boards as a tool for divination. Some Christian fundamentalists denounced them as a tool of the devil and warned against their perverse influence.
Just in time for Halloween, comes “Ouija,” a horror thriller based on the Hasbro board game. It is a permutation of the basic formula in which a gaggle of adolescents are imperiled by the confluence of supernatural forces and their own vapidity.
In an early scene, perky, well adjusted blonde teen, Debbie (Shelley Hennig from “Days of Our Lives”), finds a discarded Ouija board in the attic of her home. Debbie violates one the cardinal tenets of Ouija board protocol. She plays the game alone.
What is immediately incongruous about the film is that in an introductory scene, a younger version of Debbie (Claire Beale) introduces her friend, Laine (Afra Tully), to playing with the Ouija board. She sternly advises her young playmate that you can never play the game alone…or else. So Debbie is ignoring her own admonition.
Will Debbie somehow manage to survive the curse attached to her faux pas? Not likely. The golden girl’s body is found dangling from the ceiling of her home. Attentive viewers may question the logistics of her methodology.
Of course, everyone is shocked by Debbie’s shocking death. After all, she was always so upbeat. Has Debbie committed suicide or was she possessed by supernatural forces?
Debbie’s best friend, Laine (Olivia Cooke from “Bates Motel”), has an epiphany. Why not conjure up Debbie by using the Ouija board? That is a real stroke of genius. After all, Debbie killed herself after playing around with the Ouija board. Wouldn’t it make sense if her surviving friends to mimic her flirtation with the occult? I would not recommend that Laine include that idea as evidence of her intellect on her application to become a member of Mensa.
However, the assorted teens succumb to Laine’s brainstorm. The group includes Debbie’s surviving boyfriend, Pete (Douglas Smith); Laine’s own honey, Trevor (Daren Kagasoff); another of Debbie’s gal pals, Isabelle (Bianca Santos from “The Fosters”); and Laine’s sullen Goth girl younger sister, Sarah (Ana Coto). One of the major problems in the film is the fact that none of the teen characters is developed beyond superficiality. None of their performances merit recognition.
Lin Shaye is on hand for a few choice moments as Paulina, a batty old woman, confined to a mental asylum. Paulina had previously lived in Debbie’s home. Apparently, Debbie’s death was not the first time that strange events took place there. Shaye displays once again why she has become the reigning Queen of films of this genre.
The film might have survived lackluster performances by the teen thespians if the screenplay by Stiles White and Juliet Snowden hadn’t been so weak. The plot mechanics are clunky. Laine’s doughty grandmother, Nona (Vivis Colombetti), has nothing to do except to explain that the board is a mere conduit between the spirit world and our own. How does she come by her expertise on the occult? Is it just because Nona is a dark-complexioned Latin American with a penchant for native garb? Does granny’s ethnic background somehow place her more in touch with such matters? At least, she has more to do than Laine’s dad (Matthew Settle) or Debbie’s mom (Robyn Lively). They are introduced as stock characters, only to be abruptly banished from the film on a convenient out of town excursion. There is nothing new here, just a rehash of hackneyed genre tropes. Dialogue consists of lines like one teen uttering unconvincingly, “It’s not even real. It’s just a game.” In his debut in the helm, White’s direction proves ham-handed.
The narrative weaknesses of “Ouija” are somewhat disguised by an ominous score by Anton Sanko. It punctuates several practical effects to create some jump out of your seat moments.
“Ouija” is a silly little film, subverted by an inane screenplay. It is a low budget, uninspired affair.
** PG-13 (for disturbing violent content, frightening horror images, and thematic material) 89 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.