Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – Sub-R Horror: Ouija

10/07/2017 – Sub-R Horror: Ouija (2014)
Directed by Stiles White

Nearly 100 years ago in 1922, the Motion Picture Association of America (better known as the MPAA) was founded ostensibly to protect against censorship (especially that which occurred on a regional level) and to help maintain a good image for the film industry. Its existence has been a source of frustration for film fans as the organization (which is voluntarily supported by the studios) has managed to keep the US from being censored by moralistic crusaders at the national level but also set film back decades and still causes issues to this day. Starting with the Hays Code, created as response to protests, from 1930 (with 1934 being the year it really kicked in) to 1968, the MPAA neutered and censored films for content. By 1968 though, films such as Psycho and Bonnie and Clyde along with the work of directors such as Otto Preminger and Elia Kazan had broken the Code’s strict hold over the industry.

The MPAA we know and love (sorry the word I was looking for was hate) pivoted to a more modern system that on the surface makes sense. By giving each film a rating it would help keep the public more informed going in on content and serve as a good deterrent to protestors complaining about corrupting kids. The original ratings were G (general audiences or everyone), M (mature or everyone but with some caution), R (restricted or no one under 16 admitted without a parent), and the informal X (no one under 16 admitted period). M was soon turned into GP and then PG and two years in the 16 was bumped to 17. The first issue arose when X (not being trademarked) was coopted by the porn industry (hence the common XXX association with porn because porn creators are nothing if not eager to tell you how explicit they made things) and changing the meaning of adult film from “film for grownups” to “film to watch grownups fucking”. The 70s Golden Age of Porn effectively killed the X rating the as something usable for non-porn film meant for mainstream leaving three ratings.

Steven Spielberg (both through films he directed and produced) was the biggest cause in the creation of a fourth usable rating, PG-13. He proposed it for films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins which were clearly aimed at an older target audience. The PG rating wasn’t the only part that fell under fire as the R rating still allowed kids who were accompanied by parents (though this restriction was frequently ignored by apathetic theater workers or gotten around somewhat easily) to see movies many felt were meant for adults only. That left movies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (a fantastic movie which I saw as a teen trauma free) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover without a rating and unable to get a proper release. The X rating was rebranded as the NC-17 rating in 1990 but instead of theaters accepting it with open arms, many just rejected films given that rating and many places refused to advertise anything rated NC-17 meaning the rating was just as much a death knell as being unrated. This was rendered even worse by the inconsistent, major studio favoring, anti-sex, misogynistic, homophobic, etc. board which created a new moralistic system for film.

This is all just backstory though for the main point of this discussion. Horror, almost necessarily graphic and/or violent by its very nature, almost always falls into one of three ratings: PG-13, R, and NC-17. This is the era I want to talk about, focusing especially on American titles.

The divide between R and NC-17 is the subject of another discussion but can basically be summed up as “any film that wants even a modest sized release better be R or less” with NC-17 being an almost nonentity as films just generally go unrated (you may recognize this from the “unrated” written in big red letters on the DVDs for shitty horror movies that want to seem extreme but are almost always barely different from the theatrical versions). That leaves the decision between PG-13 (or PG before the creation of that label) and R. Through the 80s, the R wasn’t really too much of a negative for a horror title from the studio’s perspective since as I said before, the R rating was at best casually enforced. The switch in 1990 though was accompanied by a push towards more strict checking of IDs. This meant from the studio’s perspective (and this isn’t limited to just horror) an R rating meant they were cutting off the lucrative unattended kid market. What was ostensibly meant as a useful consumer guide was now truly impacting the most important thing in film, money.

This all meant that PG-13 went from just describing a horror film like Gremlins which didn’t need R-level content to work as a film to describing a film that had been clearly cut down or marketed to the mainstream by the studio. While on the one hand it functions like the Parental Advisory label on CDs to make R seem like the cool rating, it does stifle films that must embarrassingly make the violence bloodless or hold back (see also my discussion of TV movies). Horror can work when you hold something back to increase the tension and sometimes even the horror in the unseen (see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) but it is very obvious when that is a studio choice and when that is a creative one. It also led to situations where someone like the now disgraced (for unrelated reasons) Harvey Scissorhands would come in and chop up a foreign movie to make it fit American rating standards (or perceived American interests or his own stupid whims).

The sub-R rating went from being able to describe such films as The Abominable Dr. PhibesGremlinsInvasion of the Body SnatchersNight of the CometPoltergeistSugar HillThe Stepford WivesTremors, and freaking Jaws to the stuff of interchangeable forgotten big opening weekend and a crash films. The great horror films which did manage to succeed in this era have been few and far between. Even horror-comedies which can always just lean more heavily on the comedy part are led by the likes of Eight Legged Freaks and Fido (which isn’t even American) which may be enjoyable but should not be your defining movies. Borderline horror-thrillers like 1408 (until It it was the highest grossing King adaptation) and The Others can make do but largely by leaning on the thriller part.

The three more traditional movies that succeeded despite the rating all still have major question marks. Drag Me to Hell was a big controversy at the time since it was Sam Raimi’s big return to horror and he was reduced from Video Nasty director to a broad mainstream one but the biggest question is how he got away with some of that on a PG-13. Still it’s biggest fault was that it felt like Sam Raimi’s take on mainstream horror and not the next Evil DeadInsidiouswas clearly hampered in its ending whatever the hell it was going for while The Ring was mostly just held back by public assumptions of it since it was far closer to something like The Others than the trailers or popular belief held. I’m sure I missed something good (blame IMDB for not picking it up or your taste being different than mine) but even tripling the number or great PG-13 horror is still sad and there’s not a modern classic among them (The Others admittedly comes close).

All those words bring us to the main attraction. A board “game” adaptation with a PG-13 rating is the kind of thing that just screams “We aren’t even trying to pretend this is about quality”. It’s a well-known name aimed at the broadest possible audience. Even looking at the first two production companies says it all. Hasbro Films was an ill-fated effort in conjunction with Universal to make a seven films based on Hasbro products. Five of those failed to come to fruition despite accidentally having talent attached to a few, while Battleship was a big old bust in 2012 (a hilarious one that I highly recommend watching/mocking from mediocrity machine Peter Berg). Platinum Dunes is the company founded by Michael Bay responsible for crapping out terrible horror remakes for every classic franchise. The third name on the list is far more interesting. I talked about Blumhouse Productions plenty and its collaborations with James Wan but Ouija was an early studio effort to try to learn the lessons from their success. Make the movie cheap and low risk (the budget was $5 million), spend a bunch on marketing, rake in the box office ($103.6 million) success.

About the most interesting thing heading into the movie is that it stars Olivia Cooke who when she wasn’t being great on Bates Motel was busy making me wish Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was just Earl and the Dying Girl and being in the solid but interesting The Signal. Shelley Hennig was also fine in fellow Blumhouse film Unfreinded but let’s not pretend that film was interesting for the acting. I’d say I never owned a Ouija board, which is true, but my sister had one. I never saw her use it or even out of the closet but technically that meant one was in my house. Still I know enough about those stupid things from movies and pop culture and they always struck me as dumb even by people who believe in ghost standards.

The movie really wants us to think that the Ouija board is some incredibly creepy thing with so much ominous music on it. Which I guess could be used to sell the board but the rest of the movie seems really determined to call anymore who has one an idiot. A character wants to get rid of it because it is just such an evil ide, other characters regularly criticize the premise of the movie, and there even is a video in the middle of it explaining why Ouija boards are stupid. I can’t imagine this is good brand synergy since the movie advocates not using and burning Ouija boards. It doesn’t even challenge you to try “if you dare”. Hell, it seems to be implied that the only reason it even works is that the walls between two worlds are collapsing SPOILERS (albeit from an unreliable source) END OF SPOILERS which just makes me think of Fringe and how much better that is.

The actual plot of the movie involves the mysterious suicide of Cooke’s childhood friend (who was actually killed by using a Ouija board). Cooke must look after her generic, rebellious teen sister while getting to the bottom of this mystery. SPOILERS Or doing nothing which actually would have solved the whole movie. END OF SPOILERS She starts to feel her presence from the Ouija board and must gather together her group of friends cannon-fodder to fight this evil. Someone keeps sending messages of “HI FRIEND” written out which is supposed to be scary but sounds rather friendly. My actual thoughts written out were “Maybe they are the ones jumping to conclusions here. Maybe if they didn’t freak out about it and acted the way they would if Casper showed up, maybe the dead wouldn’t be so angry” which SPOILERS turns out I was basically right and it was trying to be friendly. Maybe next time send a more useful message like “Burn the body and the Ouija board please <3 Your friendly neighborhood ghost”. We get the generic séance scene, Ouija board edition, and if you are trying to help, maybe don’t just go scaring people and learns some damn manners. Oh well, you live and you learn or I guess not in the case of Mother since she’s dies before she tells them anything useful, ha ha. END OF SPOILERS

In other things I basically guessed correctly, I negatively comparted the ghost design in this to the film Mama in look and how bad they were, adding that Andy Muschietti got his ideas from it for It only for them to reveal the name of the ghost is “Mother”. It’s like we have a closed loop of hacky work. Also, there are so many jokes to be made about the dialogue “Who’s coming?” “Mother” and this just reminded me that it’s rare to see a movie have so little of a sense of humor. David Goyer would have lightened it up. Also there’s a part where it is revealed that you have to cut to open a mouth and in doing so gets the blond to scream the tall figure to death which just made me think “So I guess someone else loved ‘Hush’ too”.

The movie isn’t even trying though. It has has to have the laziest false jump scares I’ve ever seen as they frequently have characters jumping at things in brightly lit rooms when people slowly walk in. These people are the jumpiest fucking people ever that if there was ever a spider in the house, I bet there wouldn’t be an uncacked pair of pants in the house. It must also think the whole sewing the mouth shut thing is super clever cause the movie keeps going back to it despite the fact that it is a super tired premise in general. Considering the fondness for the whole eyes going white thing, maybe this movie is trying to steal from enough sources that it can Frankenstein together a better movie.

Ouija met all my extremely low expectations. I didn’t expect it to be good or even funny but I hoped for the latter at least in spurts. It’s not even hilariously bad though, just a dull compilation of all the weakest tropes of modern horror. I can’t even get too mad at it though. If I was to use my magic movie Ouija board to ask the movie why it wasn’t better, it probably would just respond “Why bother, what fan of good horror movies would watch a novelty toy adaptation?” Might as well make Magic 8 while they’re at it. They can even cast Channing Tatum as an aging stripper.

There is a clear prequel hook here with Olivia Cooke visiting someone in a psychiatric hospital detailing her experience battling Mother before and it talking her sister and all I wanted to do was yell at her to stop spoiling the movie that is supposed to be good SPOILERS and hopefully with the twist making her an unreliable narrator, Flanagan just did whatever the heck he wanted. END OF SPOILERS There’s also a half-assed sequel hook almost as a hedging there bets so they could pick either option but if they do I hope Cooke doesn’t pick up the phone. I can compare the film to Bates Motel in one respect, I just wanted to run in and save her. Except, in Bates Motel it was her character I wanted to save, here it is Cooke herself.

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Bonus Episode #5 – Sub-R Horror: Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
Directed by Mike Flanagan

I got burned by a critically acclaimed Mike Flanagan movie once before just this week with Gerald’s Game so I will admit my confidence for Ouija: Origin of Evil has dissipated. I knew the first movie was going to suck, but if the sequel turned out well, I wouldn’t care at all. Making a sequel good after a bad first movie isn’t impossible, Friday the 13th Part VIThe Devil’s Rejects, and Wrong Turn 2: Dead End all prove that, but it is really hard.

As was made very obvious from the prequel tease, we get to see just how the woman in the hospital and the woman in the basement got into their current predicaments. Aside from plot, the films are much more different from each other. Sqouija is a late 60s period piece and a real The Conjuring vibe compared to Ouija’s modern setting and tone. Overall it just looks and sounds like a quality film, taking cues from indie horror (despite having double the budget) which disguise the series origins as a cynical mainstream cash grab. But looking like something out of my beloved indie horror boom isn’t enough as proven by plenty of other pretenders to the title.

The film actually holds back the horror instead of just blowing its load in the first scene the way its predecessor did. Almost every time the movie looked like it would be giving into its baser instincts, the film would pull back and instead offer a more sensible response even with the mounting horrific events. The trio at the backbone of the film consists of a mother (played by Elizabeth Reaser of Sweet Land and recently of Manhunt: Unabomber) who conducts fake seances at home to support her family and her two daughters who both appeared in the original (though obviously at different ages) in more minor roles. The daughter is slightly cynical and rebellious but like the horror, the film surprises by pulling back on both any time either threatens to dominate. Her relationship with her mother is rather well done as evidenced by when she is caught (reluctantly) playing with a Ouija board with her friends, the mom mocks the Ouija board use but is more annoyed (not angry) at the pot use. I appreciate the continued denigration of the board but this time they at least throw in a good bit of copy (sure it’s fake as hell but it’s fun none the less).

The younger daughter on the other hand is a small blond girl in a horror movie and they are only rivaled in power by long haired Asian girls. But instead of the generic creepy kid (okay, the film does dabble in that), when she starts talking to a projector and later to the Ouija board, the film just plays into the innocence (similar to how Curse of Chucky does it). Instead of just making everything supposed to be spooky, the first time the Ouija board starts exhibiting supernatural properties, she actually thinks it’s cool and seems happy to help use it and not really understanding death is excited by the whole prospect. Instead of generic teen drama and crappy, drawn out mysteries we get an actual family dealing with financial and emotional stress from having lost their father. The teens are much more believably written instead of just feeling like college students going to high school. Seeing a dead figure doesn’t make them flip out, it just startles them. Everything is just more natural.

As with my Cult of Chucky review, the rest of this review until the final paragraph will feel free to spoil Ouija so if you would like to remain unspoiled for it, skip down there for final summations.

Anyone who saw the first one knows how this will play out, but for the most part it left my head since the films feel so disconnected. But, I do give the film credit for not just pretending that didn’t exist. They make the convoluted mythology mostly work. It just crafts that film from spooky ghostfest to something more akin to the creepy child or possession genres. The daughter starts exhibiting signs of being able to talk to the dead as she gets help with homework from a new friend who she “lets use her hand” and talks to her father using the board to find wall money (the best kind) which is certainly better than finding pork chops SPOILERS or skeletons of past residents END OF SPOILERS in there. Instead of freaking out about the whole Ouija board thing being real, the mother and older daughter are more shaken by the prospect of their fakery being real, and actually think to use it for good (and to stay afloat) instead of some boring murder mystery shit. We also got a priest who instead of moralizing about the occult or making a living off of it, just thinks it’s kind of dangerous but mostly doesn’t want to talk to the dead because he doesn’t need to.

SPOILERS The scene of the demon or whatever actually reaching down into the little girl’s throat is great and signals that shit is gonna go down even as the film continues to be patient. Patient that is until the priest is able to prove she is actually channeling evil (if the gaping maw and white eyes when no one is around didn’t make the clear enough). END OF SPOILERS The film pulls a Blumhouse (which makes sense since well… look at the people producing and who has an earlier credit this time out) and finally gives in to the horror element and I can’t say it is the best move for the movie. Kids running on the walls has become such a boring inevitability and killing people by yelling at them is still stupid even if at its best it looks like something out of the video for Come to Daddy.

The elements from the first that have been retained have generally been improved on across the board. Jump scares haven’t gone away but they have gone down in quantity and up in quality. SPOILERS That body dropping down being hung was so much more effective this time out and keeping the shot wide takes away the cheese from it. Also, sewing your sister’s mouth shut is pretty hardcore and certain shots of it look straight out of an Evil Dead movie specifically in the second one where Ash is assembling his chainsaw gauntlet.

The end is an inevitability as the older daughter is left possessed and kills her mother, being sent to the psychiatric facility we meet her in later. The biggest problem I had with the ending was it was one shot too long. If the film had ended with the daughter over the world’s most badass Ouija board, made from her own blood and a lens from a pair of glasses, it would have been a bit silly sure but awesome. We did not need to then show her staring out the cell door as some random person (her?) walks along the ceiling. END OF SPOILERS

Ouija 2: Demonic Boogaloo (thanks for that goes to the lovely DoU) is a huge improvement on the original. It’s no classic and you can feel the forces of the need for mainstream appeal holding it back at times. Like the first it’s no original, but I’ll give it credit for knowing what to pull and how to tie that all together well. It’s just about the best-case scenario after the worst-case scenario of the previous title and both works together with and as a standalone title the way a sequel should.

Next up: I knock off one of the countries whose work I haven’t spotlighted yet in China with the take-off of the Phantom of the OperaSong at Midnight. If I’m feeling generous I’ll link to every other country’s writeup thus far.

Partial Schedule