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'Ouija' Spells T-R-I-T-E

'Ouija'—Dir. Stiles White (Universal Pictures)—1 Star

Ouija
COURTESY UNIVERSAL PICTURES

In "Ouija," Shelley Hennig plays Debbie, a naive teenager who discovers malicious supernatural forces in a Ouija board that threaten the lives of everyone around her.

There is a point in “Ouija” where a character states, “I don’t want to be here; it feels wrong.” Whether Hasbro saw an opportunity to market their board game or Universal needed to fill a quota of horror movies to release this year, one cannot help but feel as though this film should not exist. “Ouija” suffers from a serious ambivalence that is reflective of the entire modern horror genre of today. Looking back to the golden days of the horror genre, films had conviction, motivation, and a sense of purpose. But by borrowing from a host of greater films, “Ouija” fails to be original and only reminds us of how genuinely terrifying horror used to be.

Debbie (Shelley Hennig) is a stereotypical blond high school student who is inquisitive in all the wrong ways. She plays with a Ouija board because she doesn’t know any better and eventually hangs herself due to the influence of some malicious spirit channeled through the board game. Debbie’s four other friends discover her death a day later and wish to say their final goodbyes to her using the Ouija board. What’s the worst that could happen?

It is within this opening sequence when that the film decides to give us a taste of every old trick in the book. Doors open and stoves turn on by themselves. It’s puzzling if this is the limit of what director Stiles White has to offer in his feature directorial debut. Surely the Ouija board has granted the filmmakers the potential to tap into something creative and imaginative, along the lines of the superior Guillermo del Toro-produced “Mama.” Unfortunately, “Ouija” becomes nothing more than a missed opportunity.

All of the film’s tense moments hinge upon the jump scare. The sudden appearance of a figure out of nowhere, or the panning of the camera to a presence lurking behind a character. The film utilizes these without earning them. Take, for instance, a scene in which the characters are exploring a dark house and decide to turn on the light. As the lights switch on, another one of the teenagers is suddenly and laughably revealed in the room. Cue the shock. He had no reason to be there and did not even enter the house with the original group—he was just standing there because he felt like it. The entire film is a series of jump scares that shock but do not terrify. They surprise for a moment but do not evoke the sense of dread that leaves one wanting more. It is the immaculately crafted suspense building up to the scare that is most powerful, not the scare alone. Better horror films such as “Alien,” “The Shining,” and even the recent “The Conjuring” are testaments to this craft. This film’s failure stems from a severe lack of atmosphere, an essential component to any piece of horror. And the uninspired cinematography may be best described as passive. The score that is never used during the film’s tensest moments is deficient of dissonant shrills and discordant sounds that could have enhanced the experience. The result is a film that may surprise, but never spooks, unnerves, or sends chills down one’s spine.

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While many horror films only utilize the clichéd Ouija board in a few scenes, an entire movie revolving around the board game fails to connect. Halfway through the movie, the board itself is lost in the proceedings as the main antagonist becomes the typical ghost seeking vengeance on ignorant teenagers who, of course, feel no need to seek help from the authorities. Interestingly enough, they seek the aid of their superstitious Hispanic maid, who is conveniently knowledgeable of everything Ouija. While most horror movies do not require sensible plot or characters, “Ouija” becomes so ludicrous that suspension of disbelief is no longer an option. Moments of coincidence, convenience, and absurdity break the sacred illusion and immersion essential to effective horror.

As White’s first film and a product of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company, the film didn’t have much going for it in the first place. Although the climax finally revealed some horrifying images of the ghost, it’s too little and too late. The most redeeming quality of the film is its brisk 89 minute runtime. “Ouija” is bogged down by unintentionally humorous moments, a lack of atmosphere, poor craftsmanship, and little ambition. The film’s most heinous crime is that, while it borrows from so many greater films, it does not respect them or their themes. “Ouija” never attempts to inspire in its audience a fascination for the actual board game, and, fundamentally, the supernatural. In the world of “Ouija,” spirits are simply tools used for cheap scares and nothing more.

—Contributing writer Richard Nguyen can be reached at rnguyen@college.harvard.edu.

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