The rules of the titular Ouija board are simple.
1) “Never play alone,” 2)“Never play in a graveyard,” and 3) “Always say goodbye.”
“Ouija” opens with two young girls, Debbie and Laine, playing with a Ouija board. Years later, Debbie dies in an apparent suicide. Unconvinced by her cause of death, Laine (Olivia Cooke) recruits her friends to help her find out what really happened. To do so, they decide to have a séance in Debbie’s house. Everything goes south from there. The power goes out, objects move on their own, ghosts go “boo.”
And my six dollars get sucked down the toilet.
One of the major problems I have with teen-centric horror films is that the characters are incredibly unlikable and seldom act as real human beings would. To call the main characters in this film “characters,” however, is almost misleading. They are so lacking in personality and character development that they fail to live up to even stock-horror roles. Characters that are lifeless blanks are just as bad as a film with unlikable morons. So once they began dying off, I could care less. I couldn’t even remember their names and had to look them up on IMDB for the sake of this review.
Laine, however, showed promise as a character. Initially, she deals with being the last person to see Debbie alive and endlessly wonders if there was something she could have done to save her. Her choice to mess with the Ouija board in the first place stems from her guilt and her need to make sense of her best friend’s tragic death. These are very understandable, sympathetic emotions.
Even though Laine has no character independent of her own pathos, this could have resulted in some decently compelling drama. If only it wasn’t forgotten halfway through the film. With that, we are left with a dull, second half filled with cheap scares and gimmicks rather than an actual story of a character coming to terms with loss and letting go of her guilt.
Besides the poorly drawn characters, the spirit world behind the Ouija board follows no working logic or pattern. Take the three rules of Ouija, for example. One rule of good screenwriting is that any exposition given to the audience should be relevant to the plot. If the exposition has nothing to do with the story, it should be cut. Since the three rules are cited to us in the very first scene, we assume they are important. And for a while, they appear to be.
When we first see adult Debbie, she’s playing the Ouija board alone and dies minutes later. She broke a rule and paid for it. Cause and effect. So far so good. However, with the exception of a throwaway line at the end, the rules are not referenced again and end up having no bearing on the rest of the story. Laine and her friends only ever play in a group, and they are still haunted and attacked. They never play in a graveyard, and they still die. What’s the point of setting up these rules if following or disobeying them produces the same result? If the rules have so little to do with anything in the film, the filmmakers should have cut them out and simply had the characters use a Ouija board to awaken vengeful spirits. It simplifies the set-up and removes the useless red herring.
Finally, while the scares themselves may prove effective to some, most of them are staged without creativity or surprise. The scares are all jump scares with none of the sustained tension that better horror movies can generate. It doesn’t help that the characters could have avoided a lot of the danger in the film by making smarter decisions. For example, during the séance, they discover that they aren’t talking to the deceased Debbie. Naturally, they do the sensible, intelligent thing – keep right on playing. As the scene progresses, things become creepier and the characters become more fearful. Do they stop playing and leave the house? Of course not. Yet, I believe a sensible person would. Wouldn’t you?
“Ouija” is a film that shouldn’t have been made. While I do understand the film had to cope with a troubled development stage and huge budget cuts, the end result is no less lousy. One need look no further than some of the old horror classics like “Halloween (1978),” “A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984),” or “Night of the Living Dead (1968)” to see that a small budget can be overcome with the use of creativity and solid writing.
In the end, it isn’t the small budget that killed this film. It was the choice the filmmakers made to simply repeat the same tired horror clichés rather than doing anything new with them.
Stephen Crane is a senior film production major. This review reflects the views of the writer only.