How ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ Taught Me to Never Count a Franchise Out Too Soon

Ouija is a godawful movie.

And this is coming from a guy that likes most of the Leprechaun films.

Trying to cash in on the Ouija board IP that Hasbro currently holds trademark over isn’t an inherently and idea. In fact, the Ouija board as a piece of horror iconography is so ingrained in the spirit of the supernatural that, frankly, it’s a no-brainer. And yet, the film, which was released in 2014, is one of the most boring, nonsensical, mind-numbingly stupid things I’ve ever seen, horror or otherwise.

It’s slow, it’s ambling, it doesn’t seem to have any clue where it’s going or how to get there. The characters are unlikable and unmemorable, and the story is a jumbled mess of supernatural clichés and convoluted contrivances that make it nearly incomprehensible. By the third act, I wanted so badly for it to be over that I was tempted to use a Ouija board myself to summon a demon and have it just end me and spare me the misery of actually finishing the film. It’s that bad.

Seriously, go look up opinions for this thing online. It’s rare that people are so unanimously unified in complete and utter distaste and hatred for a film, but Ouija certainly qualifies as maybe one of the worst reviewed films in decades. It’s got a whopping 6% on Rotten Tomatoes, which frankly is 5% more than it deserves. Even the audience score is 24%, and the audiences that report on RT are usually too stupid to know when anything is bad.

Needless to say, after seeing Ouija once, I had no intention of ever revisiting it. And I had equally little interest in the prequel, Origin of Evil, when it was announced, either. Yes, even though the original Ouija is pretty much an abysmal failure by every conceivable artistic metric, it still made $100 million on an $8 million budget, and since you can only fail upwards in Hollywood, a follow-up was greenlit pretty much immediately.

So a year or so goes by, and I’m at a friend’s house in college, when he suggests we watch Ouija: Origin of Evil. Despite my very load protests, he assures me that no, this one is better than the first. He claims it’s scarier, smarter, and actually a decently entertaining time. I relent, mostly because I’m fairly certain we were drinking at the time, and we decide to watch it.

And wow, I could not have been more wrong about this film. To say that it’s an improvement over the original would be an understatement of unbelievably monumental proportions. Comparing Ouija to Ouija: Origin of Evil is like comparing a car crash to a warm bath: So completely and utterly different emotional experiences that they don’t even rank on the same scale.

The characters are charming and mostly likable (save the one or two we’re supposed to hate). The plot is tensely-paced and quick, moving from beat-to-beat with a sense of purpose and direction, like it actually knew what it was doing. Shocker, I know. The retro-70s setting felt authentic and like a genuine accessory to the plot, not a novelty, which is rare in a period-piece horror film. And most importantly of all, it was scary. Like, really, truly, frightening. This movie plays into my two biggest horror movie weaknesses: Possessed, creepy kids, and that thing where a person’s eyes will roll back in their heads and their mouth gets all stretchy. I’m not sure what the technical name for that is, but Origin of Evil has got it in surplus, and it got me every single time.

Go compare the critical scores for Origin with its predecessor. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a disparity between two films in the same series back-to-back before. Ouija: Origin of Evil has a RT score of 82%, almost a full eighty points higher than the first film. That’s an insane jump in quality, one that I think, based on some quick research, has never been beaten either before or since.

I couldn’t understand how this film, a follow-up, mind you, could be so starkly different from its predecessor, so I looked up who had helmed it. The optimist in me thought maybe I’d see the same names, the same director and writer as the previous film, and that maybe, just maybe, they’d learned their lesson from Ouija’s negative reception and had striven to make a much better product this go around.

Turns out, that wasn’t the case. Because of course it wasn’t. People in Hollywood don’t learn, silly. No, instead, what happened was that an entirely new creative team was brought in, headed by none other than Mike Flanagan, a contemporary horror master, to up the ante on the prequel. At this point in his career, he had already done Absentia, Oculus, and Hush, all of which range from solid to excellent, so he was well on his way to stardom by the time he was tapped for Origin. Later, he would go on to direct the incredible Doctor Sleep, as well as Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House and all its sequels.

Which just makes me wonder what the hell Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes did to get Flanagan to agree to this movie. While the end result was fairly stellar, I can’t imagine what could have possibly attracted him to the project after the first film landed with such a thud. Regardless of what his reasons were, Flanagan managed to scavenge enough from the wreckage of the Ouija premise to craft a prequel that surpassed the original film in every way, which is pretty much completely unheard of.

And it seems as though Flanagan may have started a trend. I remember seeing the original Annabelle back in 2014, when the novelty of a Conjuring spin-off still felt kind of interesting and not completely played-out and stale, and remarking on how awful it was at the time. As with Ouija, I had no interest in seeing any sequels, prequels, or spin-offs of the film. And yet, a year after seeing Origin of Evil, I got talked into seeing Annabelle: Creation, and lo and behold, the same thing happened: The prequel was leagues ahead of the original in quality. I looked, and sure enough, Creation had ditched the creative team from the original film and brought in Lights Out’s David F. Sandberg to pick up the slack. And again, bringing in a tried-and-true, successful horror director worked wonders. I never watched Annabelle Comes Home, but I know that Sandberg didn’t return, and that was enough for me to doubt its chances.

I think a valuable lesson can be learned here, from an audience’s perspective: There’s rarely such as thing as a bad concept, only bad execution. A skilled writer or director can make a premise work that failed in the hands of someone with less experience or less talent. A franchise doesn’t necessarily have to die just because its debut entry fell flat. Any idea can be saved.

And let that be a lesson to movie studios as well: If you have a horror film that’s hot garbage, yet still makes enough money to warrant a sequel, drop the creative team and hire a real horror director instead. Works like a charm every time, apparently.

What horror sequels do you think are better than the originals? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Halloween!

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