Review: Ouija (dir. Stiles White, 2014)

Ouija

Ouija
USA, 2014
Director: Stiles White
Writers: Juliet Snowden and Stiles White

Review by N Emmett.

A teenage girl named Laine (Olivia Cooke) uses a Ouija board in an attempt to get in touch with the spirit of her friend Debbie (Shelley Hennig), who died in an apparent suicide. Laine and her friends discover that Debbie did not kill herself but was possessed by a malicious spirit – and the Ouija board has left the door open for that spirit to extend its influence…

Ouija is a film that exists due to branding. Following the commercial success of Transformers, the toy company Hasbro set about licensing more of its properties to Hollywood. The 2012 film Battleship was the first attempt to bring a Hasbro board game to the big screen, and now we come to the second.

While there is nothing inherently wrong about making a film based around the Ouija board, the fact that this one was overseen by a toy company may go some way to explain how utterly soulless it is. Ouija is one mass-produced plastic chunk of a horror movie.

The film’s emotional deadness becomes first apparent following Debbie’s death. A teenager’s   apparent suicide would surely lead to a good deal of soul-searching and reflection amongst her circle of friends – what could have caused her to take her own life? Could any of her friends have done something to help her? – but the film completely misses this opportunity to get under its characters’ skins. Laine spends a good ouij1deal of her time poring over home movies of her departed bestie, but these sequences come across as little more than padding.

As the film progresses, Laine gets no development in terms of personality. Laine’s sister, Sarah (Ana Coto), is given the barest modicum of characterisation: she is sarcastic, listens to music when people are talking to her, and likes to sneak out at night to visit her older boyfriend. In short, Ouija pulls out that old suburban teen horror chestnut of the good girl in denim and the bad girl in leather.

The other members of the gang – Trevor, Isabelle and Pete – are so underdeveloped as to be interchangeable. They are simply more padding for the script.

Ouija approaches its plot in the same listless manner that it handles its characters. All the beats are here: an initial encounter, a hunt for the identities behind the ghosts, a body count that gradually ouij2builds up, a climactic twist. But the film never makes any of this seem like anything other than the dry bones of a structure.

The central ghost is a little girl with a sewn-up mouth, and victims of the supernatural goings on suffer a similar affliction: their mouths become mysteriously stitched-up while their eyes glaze over. This is an effective image, and an appropriate one – Ouija is a film about communication, so it is natural that death is associated with the inability to speak. Yet, having hit upon this single strong image, the film keeps on re-using it; as the umpteenth teenager turns round to reveal their sutured lips, a sight which is creepy the first one or two times becomes merely tiresome.

Whenever the kids find themselves in a tight spot, they can always rely on the sage advice an ethnic-minority housecleaner who happens to be an expert on the occult. Inevitable, really. Ouija is simply that kind of film.

ouij3It is interesting to compare Ouija with lower-budget treatments of the same theme, such as I Am ZoZo/Are You There? and The Ouija Experiment/The Realm. Neither of these indie films were very good, but they at least had a lively inventiveness which is totally lacking from their corporate-sanctioned cousin.

It is also remarkable that both The Realm and Ouija deal with the gaping-jawed spirit of an infanticidal woman. Ouija is unlikely to have been inspired by the obscure Realm, but even if this conceptual overlap is a coincidence, it further demonstrates that Ouija simply has no reason to exist.

In all fairness, Ouija was likely conceived as a Halloween romp for adolescents who had never seen a horror film before. But that demographic deserves a better introduction to the genre than a 90-minute advert for a plastic board.