So, what do you get when you cross Michael Bay, Blumhouse Productions and a carefully-strategized, elaborate branding opportunity? Well, apparently another derivative, clichéd, boring, lame Halloween horror cash-in that’s somehow even more obnoxious and irritating than those things usually are.
I blame The Exorcist for this, as Ouija boards never really got a negative foothold in popular culture until one showed up in its opening scenes. Before that they were just toys; an attempt to mass-market the spiritualism craze of the late nineteenth century. No real association with the “occult” surrounded the product until 1973, when it all piled on at once and people legitimately began considering it a tool of the devil and/or an irresponsible means for amateur spiritualists to start messing with the “other side”. They’re still insanely popular today on the strength of that association, mass-produced not-at-all-coincidentally by Hasbro, who have their greasy paws all over this product adaptation.
But, irritatingly, the Ouija board itself isn’t even the central component of the film – it’s just a MacGuffin (no different to the doll in Annabelle) around which to structure an incredibly generic haunted-house ghost story. There’s nothing interesting being said about its history or current pop-culture ubiquity, and likewise nothing new being done with its functionality. “Is someone there?” Yep, there probably is. “Did we need this board to tell us that?” No, almost certainly not.
The setup itself isn’t inherently terrible: Debbie (Shelley Hennig) is a good-looking high school student with a close-knit group of friends who decides to hang herself with some Christmas lights. Her BFF, Laine (Olivia Cooke), sees this as somewhat suspicious given that she had a normal conversation with her about ten minutes before the suicide, and because they played as kids and there just happened to be a board in Debbie’s personal effects, Laine and the rest of the gang decide to contact their friend using the time-honoured tradition of gathering around a kitchen table and playing Ouija. In the process they accidentally make contact with a different, more malevolent spirit, who is trying to free itself from the confines of the house by using the teens as unwitting, expendable conduits.
This is all bog-standard genre stuff, but it’s moderately interesting in the early stages as it allows for a fun case of mistaken-identity; the group believing they’re communicating with their friend when they’re actually amusing the spectre sitting next to them. This doesn’t last long though, and once the film shows its hand it doesn’t have anywhere to go other than away from the fertile territory and into the barren, well-trodden lands of films like Insidious and The Grudge.
Not only is everything surrounding the premise so rote and generic that you can almost hear the pencil scraping across the checklist from one scene to the next, the stars are insipid and the dialogue they spew out is nothing more than suspense-free exposition. This is flat-pack screenwriting; a Horror 101 textbook chewed up and spat out into feature-length tedium. Even the make-up and effects wouldn’t look out of place on a doorstep trick-or-treater.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.