Olivia Cooke as Laine Morris
Ana Coto as Sarah Morris
Daren Kagasoff as Trevor
Bianca A. Santos as Isabelle
Douglas Smith as Pete
Shelley Hennig as Debbie Galardi
Sierra Heuermann as Doris Zander
Sunny May Allison as 10 year old Doris
Lin Shaye as Paulina Zander
Claudia Katz as Mother Zander
Vivis Colombetti as Nona
Is it scary? No. Is it occasionally startling? Occasionally, but it’s so focused on getting that startle that it gives up on anything approaching suspense.
It all starts off well enough when young ingénue Debbie (Henning) suddenly and surprisingly hangs herself in her living room. As catalyst, it’s a good one. The idea of something from the outside taking over your motor control and forcing you to self-harm is both viscerally and existentially horrifying (particularly if the victim is aware of what is happening to them). It also allows for the introduction of Debbie’s friends without much of the meet-cute and knowing cleverness which has been thrust on the teen foci of horror films since “Scream.” Debbie’s friends are devastated by her death and in their attempts to grieve they talk to each other like real human beings and not characters from a John Hughes film. It gives weight to their bond, which is vital to making their deaths exert any sort of feeling on the audience beyond the thrill of the moment.
Debbie’s death hits no one harder than her best friend Laine (Cooke), who refuses to believe everything is as clear as it’s being made to look. Investigating the final days of Debbie’s life, Laine learns of the Ouija board her friend discovered and begins to suspect (with very little reason) that Debbie had made contact with something or someone from beyond and it killed her.
This is where everything begins to fall apart, for Laine and for us.
Co-writer/director Stiles White (in his directorial debut) quickly dives into the pool of horror film clichés, pulling everyone with him whether they want to go or not. Because this is a film about teens in danger, all adults are quickly brushed aside in order to make room for the teens to start controlling the action. Which basically means to make room for them to make horrible decisions like using their dead friend’s Ouija board in the house she killed herself in, and then going back and doing it again. Nor do they bother to return even as the body count begins to stack up.
The interesting investigation angle also takes a turn for the worse as White works to get it out of the way as quickly as possible once his plot has started, in order to spend more time on his suspense moments. Exposition becomes a chore dealt with as peremptorily and lazily as possible. Debbie, it turns out, was a narcissist who video-taped everything she did, including her discovery and experiments with the Ouija board, so that others can discover the proof of what has been going on just in time to move the next act along. And anything the videos won’t inform about, Laine’s spiritual housekeeper Nona (Colombetti) has handy-dandy information about just in time to make sure we understand the mechanics of the final confrontation. And when a horror film becomes about mechanics (‘you must stand at this spot and recite this incantation at just this time to remove the demon’) it becomes a known quantity which destroys suspense. Suspense is about the fear of the unknown.
Yes, exposition is hard and tedious and often the worst part of writing, but that’s no excuse for hackery, which is what we get the more “Ouija” goes on. Part of that is the length, at a bare 90 minutes White has cut his film to the bone, but with an eye towards making the most of his scares, he’s had to lose much of the connective tissue that would make those thrills matter. Coherence eventually goes out the window as “Ouija” tries to build speed to its conclusion, a side effect of which being you won’t have time to wonder about the logic of the ghost reaching out to the real world and killing people until it is released from the bonds holding it down so that it will be free to reach out to the real world and kill people.
That’s mostly because, after a promising start, White quickly falls victim to the horror film curse as he sets aside suspense and thrills as a goal and aims solely for visceral scares, the kind that get the adrenaline pumping for a moment, then disappear and are forgotten. As usually happens, the law of diminishing returns quickly takes hold after the first person jumps out of the shadows, leaving White to scramble to keep his momentum going even as he cuts off all avenues for doing so.
“Ouija” sticks so firmly to the modern horror film playbook that it will surely appeal to fans of the modern horror film. But like the jump scares the film revels in, once the initial excitement passes it will quickly be forgotten in the chase for the next thing.