Like many horror films, Ouija starts with the death of a teenage girl. Debbie (Shelley Hennig) throws an ancient-looking ouija board into the lit fireplace, only to find it sitting on her bed when she goes up to her room. When she looks through the planchette, her eyes turn into a milky, white haze, and she proceeds to hang herself with a string of lights. Although this plays very much by-the-book, we’re intrigued, wondering how a piece of wood with a strong sense of self-preservation can do this to a person.
Ouija then spends the next of its 89-minute runtime explaining absolutely everything to the viewer, sucking this already bland movie completely dry of any intrigue or mystery. Debbie’s best friend Laine (Olivia Cooke) becomes obsessed with finding out what drove Debbie to an apparent suicide, and recruits a group of her friends to help her out. They play with the ouija board—spurred on by a video Debbie took of herself engaged in the like activity—and stir up some trouble with spirits that haunt Debbie’s home. Laine resolves to destroy the spirits when it becomes clear that staying away from the ouija board will not be enough to keep them safe. Cue a creepy old woman in a psychiatric hospital breaking down the story for the audience, extreme exposition-style, leaving the movie to march towards its plainly obvious conclusion.
Audiences don’t ask too much from a horror movie. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel like Citizen Kane in order to succeed. But Ouija’s presentation fails just as much as its story. The direction by first-timer Stiles White is workmanlike and thus personality-free. He at least dispenses with increasingly popular shaky cam, preferring a camera that is almost constantly gliding around. At first, this is interesting, because camera movement is inherently cinematic. However, White does not expand beyond this rudimentary technique, and has the actors in close-up for much of the film, preventing us from getting a sense of the surroundings and draining the film of any atmosphere. The scary moments are all standard-issue boo-jumpers, and the sound design bumps and bangs with clockwork predictability. The score is omnipresent yet completely forgettable. And although White eschews CGI for the most part, it feels as though it is due to the slim $5 million budget rather than a commitment to in-camera artistry.
Perhaps the only bright spot is Cooke, who convinces us as a young woman in mourning. She behaves like someone who lost a loved one, and we can sympathize with her single-minded pursuit of the truth. When your otherwise cheery friend is taken away from you, you’d have questions, too. Unfortunately, no one else in the cast is up to the medium-height bar she sets. The rest of the cast is filled out by generically gorgeous twenty-somethings, none of whom inspire anything but shrugs when they’re inevitably rubbed out. It would almost be better if we actively disliked them—as in the Scream films—so there would at least be a sense of justice when they die. Instead, we simply have no reaction.
The various components of Ouija feel as though they have been unpacked from a board game: bland, inoffensive, and identical to every other game on the market.