2016 has certainly shaped up to be a productive year for Mike Flanagan, whose 2011 Lovecraftian indie ABSENTIA effectively thrust the director into the spotlight, with a couple of his most recent releases being the Netflix-distributed home invasion thriller HUSH, about a deaf woman defending her cabin in the woods from a sadistic stranger, and the fantasy-horror yarn BEFORE I WAKE, which after being delayed for nearly two years enjoyed a limited theatrical run earlier in September. One could say the filmmaker – born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts – is at the height of his powers at the moment. There is, however, a third and final film in this sequence, and it might just be the best of the bunch.
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is billed as a sequel to the supposed stinker of similar namesake from 2014, and months prior to its release, Flanagan was already quite open as to how he felt about that film. It was a career move that was sure to turn a couple heads, but anyone who knows anything of the director’s past work knows that he goes all in or not at all, and his commitment to the project left little room to doubt that it was one which allowed his creativity to flourish.
Los Angeles, 1967; a family of three – Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters, teenage Lina (Annalisa Basso) and Doris Zander (a truly superb Lulu Wilson) – runs an in-house fortune telling business which involves scamming customers through séance. Alice would be the first to admit that it’s all a hoax, but she enjoys feeling that they’ve providing clients with some closure in regards to their personal grief. One day, she decides to add an Ouija board to the family’s professional repertoire, which immediately piques young Doris’s curiosity. Unfortunately her sporadic use of the device unearths more than few skeletons in the family’s collective closet, one being the absent father figure, who Doris claims she speaks to through the board.
His spirit is hardly the last or the most malicious to enter through the doors which lie between our world and the one(s) beyond. Mother and eldest daughter go through their own separate arcs – with a local priest and much younger romantic interest from school, respectively – though Doris undergoes a transformation of a far more sinister nature, one which is tragically beyond her control.
ORIGIN OF EVIL opts for a slow-burn approach, which surely benefits the film’s more dramatic aspirations. The number of jump scares could barely be counted on one hand, and while there’s some obvious CGI employed whenever Doris looks into the mirror world of the dead, this too is done rather tastefully; these brief shots feeling much like the invasive spirits which haunt the narrative rather than studio-imposed diversions. Besides, they exist in such an exquisitely crafted portal. Michael Fimognari’s cinematography is simply outstanding, with most of the film showered in foreboding, ethereal light and the rest adorned with meticulous sleaze and grime. There’s beautiful, phantasmagorical imagery here fit for a Bava or a Fulci, which can never be a bad thing, and the film is perhaps best approached as a cinematic fairy tale of the variety which those filmmakers often dabbled in. Ultimately, a stronger ending could have been applied, but every good/great film should be allowed a fault or two.
Once again, Flanagan is deeply fascinated with the deconstruction of the American family, though his point of view doesn’t seem to be one rooted in cynicism. His latest, much like the earlier OCULUS (2013), is more about what keeps us together as opposed to what tears us apart; which secrets should remain unheard of and which ones we should more openly discuss amongst ourselves. The way in which Flanagan relates paranormal experiences to emotional discharge is subtly moving, and there’s also an understated feminist streak which runs throughout his work thus far. Here is a genre director who understands all too well that horror films should inspire tears before fits of laughter, and that most simply do not work without some semblance of resonance. While he’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, the director’s intrinsic technique and empathy is so consistently impeccable that one can believe – at least in the moment – that he might as well be doing so.