As someone who was a young kid during the 80s, I have some dim memories of all the Satanic Panic stuff that went on back then. My older brother—who listened to Ozzy Osbourne and KISS and all that—had a Ouija board for a while, and I remember watching the Witchboard movies with him, or at least trailers for them, as well as the whole craze about how if you used a Ouija board then demons would come and take your soul or whatever.
Sadly for the officially licensed 2014 film version, I don’t think there’s as much of that going on these days, and so the movie doesn’t have a ready fallback of urban legend to get audiences fired up, and instead has to rely on the usual bag of cheap tricks that have been used so often in the modern swath of PG-13 ghost movies as to have become the oldest of possible hats.
As one of my friends said as we were walking out of the screening, “It wasn’t bad, but I liked it better the last couple of times I saw it.” There are some good touches in Ouija, but most of them are pretty small. The big stuff all feels uninspired, and derivative of other, better movies that are all still fresh in everyone’s mind. It’s one thing for a modern movie to homage something like Evil Dead or The Changeling, but here they’re pulling from movies that came out just a couple of years ago.
While Ouija is obviously angling to get what one reviewer dubbed “the sleepover crowd,” it’s pretty much just using the exact same playbook that movies like Insidious previously used to much better effect. When homaging a title treatment (pretty well, honestly) and borrowing a ghost from Insidious 2 wasn’t sufficient, they just borrowed an actress as well. (To her credit, as in Insidious, Lin Shaye does what little work she’s required to do here excellently, and her few minutes on screen are far creepier than the majority of the ghost effects and jump scares that the film can muster.)
Ouija also feels weirdly long and slow for a movie that clocks in at just under 90 minutes. A slow burn can absolutely work, but here it just feels like the movie can’t make up its mind. While the ending delves into some of the same kinds of great Gothic conceits that the aforementioned Insidious franchise mined for such rich veins—hidden chambers with mummified corpses, spooky old séances—the incredibly slow build-up makes it all feel a bit like too little too late.
Like I said, there are some really good touches here. Everyone may be talking about the dental floss scene, but one of the better moments is actually an almost throwaway effect that follows it, when the camera pans down to the character’s feet. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t seem to know a good touch from a bad one, and every effective moment is paired with at least one that isn’t, whether it’s the overuse of the stretched-mouth ghost look, the presence of the inexplicable exposition grandma, or the reappearance of Chekhov’s swimming pool cover (you’ll know it when you see it).
Ouija isn’t exactly bad, it just also isn’t much, a weirdly-paced and mostly toothless exercise in checking off ghost movie clichés. If you’re desperate for a spooky movie fix this Halloween, you could do worse, but I wouldn’t go out of my way.