Ouija: Origin of Evil
Yes, it’s basically a board-game film, but the motions and moves – cinematographic and otherwise – are all linked to the characters’ personal wounds in Ouija: Origin of Evil, a minor-key film haunted by that old specter of the ‘70s horror, when ghosts were reflections of personal and internal disquiet as well as unstated lesions in familial communities. Hardly great cinema, and Ouija: Origin of Evil displays few particularly inventive tricks. But that’s as a would-be third Conjuring film. As the sequel to Ouija, one of the worst horror films of the decade? It’s practically The Haunting, The Innocents, and Don’t Look Now all wrapped into one unholy concoction.
It’s all courtesy of director Mike Flanagan, one of the star-bright lights of semi-underground independent horror, a la Ti West, David Robert Mitchell, Adam Wingard, and Robert Eggers. Nothing in Ouija could even haunt the unfilled cracks of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and his devilishly clever, thorny graphic matches and temporal and spatial disturbances. But Flanagan is a crisply inventive and entirely well-built director, even substantial in the rare moments where his camera finds something especially tragic in the sidelines of the frame. The tragedy is tied to the Zander family, mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) and her daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), who fake psychic readings and séances but genuinely act to help their customers, providing the emotional closure they so desire. When they incorporate the titular board into their shows, they find that they really can contact Alice’s deceased husband (and the kids’ father), who inhabits young Doris. Or, at least, they think it’s their father…
The notional franchise dusting is really just a means to extra millions at the box office, but the spirit of this “prequel” really is self-contained. It’s a plainly old-fashioned ghost story set in 1967 (which you know because the youngest daughter’s name is Doris) and it exhibits the dusted-off tricks of the trade known to films from that era. Careful camera manipulation, baleful sounds, nothing iconoclastic unless judged only in reference to the predecessor Ouija which barely remembered that it was a visual medium to begin with. The inability to actually see the ghosts throughout, Flanagan’s hesitance about jump scares, finds fright not in the sudden reveal of phantoms but in half-suggested figments fleeing the frame, formally doubling as an expression of being blinded by one’s will to believe what one cannot see. So many ghost stories are about doubting the existence of the supernatural – about the dangers of not believing – but Origin of Evil asks what happens when a family is too keen to believe that they are genuinely being confronted by their long-lost father.
A belief that gets the family in hot water when Alice more or less exploits her daughter’s contact with the dead as a form of trickery for audiences. It’s as though Alice is trapped in a reverie of sudden belief, not only at the economic opportunities the board affords but the sense in another world, a legitimization of all she’s feigned to work for. Her immediate and unquestioning, blinding desire to reconnect to her lost loved one blinkers her peripheral vision, even her ability to see what is right in front of them. Classical stuff, but it’s refreshing to see it played so elegantly and with a camera that sits in such old-school equipoise throughout, accented with personal tragedy as questions about coping with trauma creep around the fringes.
For the most part, Flanagan’s film is a genuinely guileless horror film, unguarded by irony or satire and entirely straight-faced about its drama. It never retreats into a self-conscious cleverness or a striving for superiority a la Scream, a need to superimpose itself above its predecessors rather than comfortably curl up with them. There are missteps. Canny dialogue like “besides, splitting up sounds like the stupidest idea in the world” reconnect the film with the kind of irony the rest of Flanagan’s style is unhesitantly severed from. And, expectedly, the film develops a case of the last act mumbles when everything turns a touch “bigger” than need be. But it’s a horror film. What do you expect? Until then, Flanagan plays with absence and negative space intuitively and in the best horror film tradition, understanding that fear is a direct byproduct of connecting the visual to the mental and exposing the tensions in what we see and don’t, and in this case, what we conspicuously choose to overlook.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
People are doomed objects in Osgood Perkins’ filmic debut, a vessel for ambiguous, almost catatonic despondency. All melodrama and most of the event vacuumed out, this story of besieged women in an Upstate NY Catholic school establishes a mood of fertile vacancy that resonates with wintry depression and neglected souls. Perkins’ film unfolds in long pauses, untenanted landscapes, and ambient sounds that intimate a sense of personal abandonment, like one’s emotions and ties to the world are being hollowed out before our eyes, the surfaces drained to reveal caverns of existential ennui, social disillusionment, and personal uncertainty. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is classical horror in the finest tradition – all negative space and patches of absence – but it boasts a modernist, elliptical twist.
As narratively unoccupied as the school, Perkins’ film waylays story development and even character psychology for a vibe of forgotten despair, with any happiness long-departed. The upstate NY it registers is as an out-of-the-way place, defunct in attitude and seemingly filled with a few stragglers from humanity, misplaced people who feel psychologically neglected in the sense that the film, befitting its milieu of barrenness, hasn’t the foggiest idea what governs its characters. This inability to violate their mental spaces, I take it, is an intentional decision, and either way it only contributes to an overall existential distance creeping into the film, haunting the corners of the frame and overtaking the people within it, emptying them out.
With multiple women hovering around the school while Perkins intercuts obliquely between multiple time-frames on the same night, drama in the conventional sense seems extinct. The fractal collection of women splinters the film, each character a tiny image of lonely uncertainty that festers into an open lesion out of which an extreme loneliness blossoms. And I mean extreme; whatever demon Perkins is summoning, his diabolical film lays it on thick.
Narrative development is out of the question, pointedly. The Blackcoat’s Daughter inhabits a vibe of perpetual stasis, a temporal immobility that grips the film in a vise of gloom, its characters circling or shambling around in a mental rut. They are Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), the only two leftover girls in the school over a February break, a third girl (Emma Roberts) whose identity is uncertain, and an elderly couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who pick-up the third girl and offer to drive her to her debatable destination. They all, and the film, percolate with an inner-turmoil, a troubled vibe of apprehensive ominousness courtesy of Julie Kirkwood’ dread-saturated cinematography and Elvis Perkins’ sleepwalking, toxic-drone score, along with the moth-eaten, near-broken editing that suggests a film picked apart and unable to put itself back together.
If I must gripe, Perkins compromises at the end with a mildly neutering final revelation that just has to button-up the various character shards by explaining everything at the last minute. The characters’ stories are best taken not as hyper-linked nuggets waiting for connective tissue but as atmospheric adjacents, each girls’ forlorn woe enhancing the others and adding up emotionally rather than narratively. The girls’ dire moods reverberate mentally, sonically, visually, and thematically, and stitching them together with explicit narrative connections only neutralizes the deliciously ambivalent mood Perkins has distilled for us. Still, the characters and the styles mount an unholy convergence toward the end of the film (a few murders are malevolent extensions of Perkins’ father’s most famous sequence), and they discharge enough intimate sorrow to stitch a mosaic of despair from the very beginning. Many horror films are cackling arias of terror; this one is a low, doleful rumble of doubt, a diametric inversion of any classical school-girls-trapped-in-peril film.