“Do not go seeking answers from the dead,” a housekeeper warns a girl with a Ouija board in first-time director Stiles White’s would-be frightener. Of course, this being a horror movie about teens in peril, you know that sage advice will be ignored and not all of the high schoolers who play with the spirit board will survive.
Ouija, based on the famous Hasbro game, starts out with two little girls innocently playing with the titular board late at night in a bedroom. (Why a parent would give a child a Ouija board and allow her to try to contact the dead is perhaps the movie’s biggest mystery.) Nothing happens to the kids, but the film then jumps forward several years to the present day, when one of the girls, Debbie (Shelley Hennig), is now a teen and breaks the first rule of Ouija by playing alone. It isn’t long before Debbie is swinging from the rafters with a strand of white lights around her pretty, snapped neck.
Laine (Olivia Cooke), Debbie’s BFF, finds the Ouija board and decides to use it to contact Deb and find out what really happened to her. But she’s not going to play alone. She convinces her younger sister (Ana Coto), her boyfriend (Daren Kagasoff), Debbie’s boyfriend (Douglas Smith), and another gal pal (Bianca Santos) to place their fingers on the game’s planchette and play along in Debbie’s dining room. (Conveniently and unbelievably, the dead girl’s parents ask Laine to watch the house while they take a trip.) The naïve group inadvertently make contact with an evil spirit, who then stalks them and begins bumping them off one by one.
PG-13 horror movies are difficult to pull off, but they can be effective -- The Others and The Woman in Black come to mind. Ouija could have added its name to that list, but instead it settles for routine jolts generated by quick cuts to ghoulish figures and shrieks on the soundtrack. It doesn’t help that the characters, most of whom are only around so they can be killed off, are paper-thin and undistinguishable from each other. When things start going sideways, viewers will likely know which ones will survive and which ones won’t.
Olivia Cooke of Bates Motel fares better than her co-stars, but the real standout is Lin Shaye (Insidious) in a small but pivotal role as a woman in an asylum who once lived in Debbie’s house and has firsthand knowledge of the evil that dwells there. Unfortunately, her all-too-brief appearance isn’t enough to quicken the pulse of this atmospheric but anemic effort, which is woefully lacking in the scare department.
Ouija is horror-lite that goes down smoothly enough; it will please undemanding moviegoers who prefer mild chills to heart-racing shivers, but others will be sorely disappointed. Universal and Hasbro obviously hope that Ouija will generate a franchise. While it won’t sink like Battleship, it isn’t likely to scare up much business after Halloween. Word of mouth can be a killer.
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