I can’t help wondering what Hasbro executives were thinking in licensing the company’s Ouija board property to Universal Pictures. Just how many copies of this seance-themed novelty item — suitable for players age 8 and older who might be seeking to commune with the dead on family game night — were they hoping to sell? A horror movie that practically opens with a shot of someone throwing the infernal thing into a fireplace is not exactly the best commercial.
A better question might be: Will this gambit sell movie tickets?
“Ouija,” the film, is in a difficult position vis-à-vis Ouija, the board game. Unlike other beloved Hasbro properties that have been turned into films (e.g., Battleship, G.I. Joe action figures and Transformer robot toys), the object at the center of this story — a device that has been said to facilitate communication with ghosts — still creeps out a lot of people.
That, of course, is an excellent reason to make a scary movie. The thing is, if you’re going to do it, the movie better actually be scary.
Though “Ouija” starts off evoking a nicely eerie atmosphere of dread, it ultimately goes too far, making the liminal space between the spirit world and this one all too eye-rollingly literal.
There’s some good news here. “Ouija” features a strong, believable cast. The young actors playing a group of teens who get sucked into an obsession with an antique Ouija board after the suspicious death of a friend (Shelley Hennig) are quite good at conveying the mix of healthy skepticism and morbid fascination that is necessary to pull an audience into the tale. Anything that presupposes the existence of a form of supernatural texting — via a movable planchette sliding over a board that has been printed with the letters of the alphabet — is going to be a tough sell in this modern age of reason and instant messaging.
There are no credulous idiots among this crew. And the powers of persuasion of the film’s heroine, Lane (Olivia Cooke), a reluctant Ouija board player who at first simply wants to say “TTFN” to her dead BFF, are formidable. It’s also nice to see actress Lin Shaye, of the “Insidious” films and other horror titles, crop up late in the film in a small but pivotal role.
Like Lane, the film is seductive. At one point, our heroine is shown looking up an online video in which the Ouija board’s allegedly supernatural powers are attributed to the “ideomotor phenomenon” (i.e., wishful thinking). This bit of preemptory debunking by director Stiles White, who co-wrote the film with Juliet Snowden, is canny. It sets up things nicely for when the action starts to get a little more ectoplasmic.
And that’s where the film goes off the rails. The deliciously unsettling ambiguity of traditional Ouija board play — characterized by accusations that one player is deliberately moving the planchette, and the subsequent heated denials — is replaced quickly by standard horror-movie tropes involving ghoulish apparitions, zombie-like trances and violent, “Exorcist”-style telekinesis. Little is left to the imagination, which is where all real horror lies.
Of course, certain adjustments were necessary in adapting the board game to the screen. As with “Battleship,” which turned an exercise in strategic guesswork centered around a plastic pegboard into a sci-fi-flavored naval action flick, “Ouija” is hampered by the fact that watching a bunch of people sitting around a table is not inherently cinematic. Hence, the filmmakers have added a little fillip not included in the original Ouija board rules: In the film, if you look through the “window” of the planchette, you actually can see dead people.
That accommodation may be a necessary evil, but it violates a dictum that any true fan of the Ouija board will acknowledge: What’s seen only by the mind’s eye is far scarier than anything that Hollywood — or Hasbro — might try to sell us.
(99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for frightening images, mature thematic material and some violence.