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Thursday, October 20, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 15: Ouija (2014)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Written by Juliet Snowden & Stiles White
Directed by Stiles White

Olivia Cooke:  Laine Morris
Ana Coto:  Sarah Morris
Daren Kagasoff:  Trevor
Bianca Santos:  Isabelle
Shelley Hennig:  Debbie Galardi
Douglas Smith:  Pete

Oh, cripes, it's another movie based on a board game. Parker Brothers apparently doesn't want to leave any secondary revenue stream untapped, so we got the Clue movie in 1985 (a delight, with deft comic performances from all the character actors bouncing off each other as the bodies pile up) and then Battleship two decades and change later. I don't have an informed opinion of that movie because life's too short to watch it. And this is from someone who saw Army of Darkness five times in the theaters (which had to be done quickly). At any rate, now there's a PG-13 horror movie about trying to make contact with the spirit world via a plastic triangle and a piece of cardboard with the alphabet on it. Considering that horror movies tend to turn a profit and $200 million science-fiction action movies stand a greater chance of losing money, maybe a grimdark mid-budget horror movie based on Candy Land is in the future. Operation! could be redone as an uncredited remake of Dr. Giggles. Or Mille Bornes could be a studio-funded ripoff of Death Race 2000.

What am I really saying here? There aren't that many horror movies that start with the letter O. I have seen a trailer for a set-in-the-Mad Men-years prequel to this movie, which at least will have interesting costumes and cars to look at if it's tepid and boring everywhere else. Perhaps the prequel will answer all the questions people had about why a method of contacting Satan is sold at Toys Backwards R Us in a country where Dungeons and Dragons caused a decades-long panic over the nerdiest pastime to exist until fantasy football was a going concern. Maybe it's just a quick cash-in on this movie trying to look a little more distinctive than its progenitor. I'll probably find out about this time next year, because, as stated at the start of this paragraph:  There aren't that many horror movies that start with the letter O.

The film starts with two little girls sitting on a bed near a Ouija board; among other thins, the blonde kid tells the brunette (Laine) that the Ouija board is multiplayer-only, like SpaceTeam, and that you shouldn't ever use one in a graveyard. Oh, and you have to say "Goodbye" when you're done playing to send the ghost(s) back to where they came from. Unless it's going to be a three minute movie, those rules are going to get themselves good and broken by the end of the first act. Otherwise you've got the "talking to the spirit world" version of a film where nobody gets a Mogwai wet or feeds its offspring after midnight. The last thing the viewer (and Laine) learns is that the planchette (the chintzy piece of plastic that board users put their hands on) will let someone see a ghost if they look through the hole in the middle. Who knew that the occult would be so accessible? Next thing you know there'll be copies of The Long-Lost Friend available at Big Lots in a closeout.

Anyway, Laine looks through the planchette and sees a shadowy figure, but it turns out to be another girl, Sarah, who apparently heard the conversation and came in to see what was going on. No idea if this is a slumber party between friends or three sisters or what, because the movie appears to be allergic to exposition at this point. But we get a dissolve to Debbie, a young blonde woman, kneeling in front of a fireplace and soloing a session with a much older-looking board and saying goodbye before tossing the wooden Ouija board into the fire. So something's up, and hopefully the movie will tell us what it is. Grown-up Laine calls the blonde and tells her they're going to be late for a game (they're college-aged, so I'm guessing they're going to watch some football rather than playing Call of Cthulhu in someone's parents' basement). Stiffly delivered exposition tells the audience that there's supposed to be no secrets between Debbie and Laine; Debbie says for Laine to just go ahead to the basketball game cause her parents will be home soon (...huh?).

A slow-moving POV shot moves towards Debbie as she eats leftovers, and then a door opens on its own behind her. If it were a portal to the other side that'd be creepy, but this one just goes to the laundry room. Then a stove burner turns itself on (and is two different burners in the long shot and insert, but Debbie only turns one off when she counteracts whatever malevolent force is hanging around performing acts of unimpressive telekinesis). Debbie turns off the lights and goes upstairs, because that is what Movie People do in this kind of situation, and finds that the Ouija board she set on fire is now on her bed, completely undamaged. She looks through the planchette, gasps in fear, and promptly hangs herself with the world's longest string of Christmas lights. Well, that's one way to have the Threat-Establishing Casualty taken out of the film.

The next morning, Laine's being stood up for a breakfast date by the now-deceased Debbie and her boyfriend Trevor shows up with a map to a remote camping site that he wants to utilize for a vacation. Which suggests summer, I guess, but it was basketball season at school and there were Christmas lights used as a suicide implement...looks like the film takes place on the 43rd of Janutember. Or maybe people will be complaining about the uncharacteristically warm Smarch weather. Laine says that she thought it was a sausage fest camping trip and doesn't want to learn how to surf (Trevor says he'll teach her). Trevor and Laine's mutual friend Isabelle, a waitress at the diner, shows up to top up everyone's caffeine and remind them there's a party that evening (that Laine and Trevor will be avoiding so they can "watch a movie or something"--I'm guessing more "something" than throwing All That Jazz in the DVD player). Laine's phone dings with a text from her father saying she needs to get home with a quickness, so she does.

At Laine's place, it looks like she's going to have an intervention (her dad, sister Sarah, and "Nona", who I guess is the housekeeper (?) are waiting for her somberly. Instead of telling Laine that her smack habit has to go, it turns out that they want to break the news of Debbie's suicide to her gently. At the wake or post-funeral visitation or something (it's at Debbie's parents' place--guess they didn't want to pay for a location shoot at a graveyard), Nona tells Laine that Debbie's not really gone, but rather is still in Laine's heart. Where her blood belongs. Another mourner, Pete, shows up with flowers and it looks like Laine, Trevor, Pete, Isabelle and Sarah are going to be the five-person group investigating Debbie's suicide. Also, I'm pretty sure we never actually meet anyone in Debbie's actual family here. Actors are expensive, you know...

Laine goes upstairs to Debbie's room (where the Christmas lights have been put back on her mantelpiece--not sure I'd put them back and plug 'em back in if I were her grieving parents. And then Debbie's mother does show up to give Laine a hug and reminisce about the late girl. During this sequence Laine gets a gift box full of stuff that Debbie's mom (unnamed, just "Mrs. G" in the dialogue) thinks Debbie would have wanted her to keep as a series of mementoes; Laine takes the box, then goes back home to look at old video clips on her phone and mourn. Those clips also show that Pete was Debbie's boyfriend, at least at one time. During her "stayed up too late grieving" session, Laine hears Sarah return home and quietly berates her for sneaking out that night while everyone in the household is in emotional disarray. We learn that Laine and Sarah's mom isn't in the picture any more during this scene, and in the next one their dad leaves town for a few days to do Business Things.

Also the next day, as Laine and Trevor go to school, Laine does a quick tour of the Debbie's Parents house to make sure the stove gas isn't on and a Hellmouth hasn't opened in their basement while the adults are out of town. While Trevor demonstrates that he is not clever trying to get the pool cover straightened out in the back yard, Laine hears a weird noise from upstairs and goes there in time to see the light from a desk lamp flickering in Debbie's bedroom. She doesn't unplug that lamp (hope the house doesn't burn down on your watch, Laine) but does wind up spotting the Ouija board and planchette at this point. There's a jump scare when she moves the bedroom door and Trevor's there wondering if they're cleared to go to school now and Laine gives a brief explanation of what a Ouija board is to her boyfriend.

At school, Laine talks to Pete about whether or not Debbie was acting strangely before her death, and gets no usable information. Soon after that she's hatched a plan to use the Ouija board to talk to her friend and see--belatedly, of course--what was going on with Debbie and why she chose to kill herself. Trevor's on record as a skeptic. However, along with Iseabelle, he says he'll go along with one (1) session, with no expectations that anything's going to happen. As Laine leaves to go punch a hole through the veil of mists separating Earthly life from the afterworld, she sees the college-age creep's car outside and scares him off, prompting a scolding from her younger sister for ruining her evening. Laine counters by press-ganging Sarah into the Ouija session.

The group goes back to Debbie's Parents' place to hold the seance, too, which is probably some kind of ethical lapse even if it's the spot that is most likely to have traces of her spirit in it. Laine goes upstairs to fetch the Ouija board while Sarah complains about the signal strength of a board game when trying to talk to the spirit world (wait till she finds out it's much more like Morse code than sending a text). At least there's another jump scare as Pete shows up out of nowhere as someone turns the lights on. With everyone seated around the kitchen table, Laine gives a quick recap of the rules (second time we hear about not playing in a graveyard, which means I'm pretty sure I know where the third act is going). Then it's spirit contacting time! Isabelle is the least willing to go along but she does decide to contribute to the collective effort.

At first, of course, the planchette doesn't move but then (also of course) it does. Multiple accusations of the "No, YOU'RE making the pointer move!" ensue and then the message is spelled out:  HI FRIEND. I would have been hoping for IT'S HPL NOW TAKE DICTATION or possibly SUPER BOWL WINNER FOLLOWS, myself. Everyone tries to tell Debbie that they miss her and wanted to say goodbye; the pointer moves to the GOODBYE section at the bottom of the board and then the lights go out. Laine goes looking for a ghost and fails to see one (use the hole in the planchette, you goof!). The stove burner turns on again, which means that it's the appliance-obsessed malevolent entity from earlier (or that Debbie wants her friends to brew up a nice soothing pot of Darjeeling). Everyone splits up in the house to wander around in the dark and look at other weird happenings like the light fixture in the foyer shaking and creaking. Pete sees this, and then headbutts his reflection in a mirror like he's a Siamese fighting fish. Well, that's seven years back luck for you, kid, although you might wind up getting written out of the movie earlier. He claims that something pushed him into the mirror, and the party of five leaves the house. Laine keeps the Ouija board and planchette, since she wants to keep one more thing of Debbie's. Trevor says they did their contractually obligated seance and he's done with it.

That night, wisely, Laine decides not to carry out a solo session with the board. The next day, after school, Nona spots the board and tells Laine not to get messed up with the occult. Laine says she'll get rid of the board, which is almost certainly a lie. Also later that day, Trevor's riding a bike (the actor looks like he's in his mid-twenties or so, but he's playing a high school student) and hears a vague presence in an underground tunnel. He leaves his bike behind (in a better movie, it would have been stolen seconds after he turned away from it) and sees HI FRIEND chalked on the tunnel wall after a run-in with a shook-up shopping cart. There's nobody around to have written it there, of course.

And at her gig at the diner, Isabelle leaves for the night and carries a bag of trash to the Dumpster, making this the second ghost-centric movie I've done for HubrisWeen featuring a "carry a bag of garbage out at night" scene. "HI FRIEND" is written on the condensation of Isabelle's car window--from the inside. And it then gets wiped out by a spectral hand, but when she opens the car door there's nobody in there. She calls Pete for backup and a drive home, and when we get a shot from over Pete's shoulder he's got the movie's Phrase That Pays carved into his bedroom furniture also as well. Laine is watching YouTube videos explaining the ideomotor effect and reasurring her that they didn't actually pierce the shadowed veil between this world and the next. But if there's no full-roaming vaporous entities at Casa Morris, why did the front door open and then close? (Also, THEN WHO WAS PHONE?) Laine and Sarah retreat into Laine's bedroom and close the door, but something thumps the door so they retreat into a closet for a scene of, ummm, suspense. "hi friend" is on Laine's laptop screen, which then fritzes out. If ghosts can type, why bother with a Ouija board? Get a secretary capable of automatic writing and get in touch with the Other Side a bit more effectively!

At school the next day, everyone compares notes about seeing the ominous message in their lives; Isabelle was too freaked out to go to school that day but the other four members of the group decide they need to talk to Debbie again and find out what's up with the cryptic messages. So back into the Debbie's Parents' Place kitchen they go, although this time they were smart enough to bring a couple lantern-style flashlights since the manifestations knocked out the power last time. Everyone says the opening chant together and Laine asks Debbie to respond, since they all got her textoplasmic messages. The sixth chair at the Debbie's Parents' table pulls out by itself and then the planchette skips off the board by itself. Everyone puts their fingertips back on the pointer and learn that Debbie didn't kill herself; she was compelled to hang herself by a vengeful spirit. Or rather, everyone thinks they're talking to Debbie. Pete bluffs the entity that they're talking to and the spirit identifies it as "DZ". if it's manifesting in the empty chair at the table, DZ's got arms about eleven feet long.

Also, just as a point of contention about the film:  Seeing everyone's hands get moved around on the planchette to get answers from a spirit is pretty cool and spooky the first time or two that the audience sees it, but the bloom's well and truly off the rose here and it's only the second act of the film. The director remembers there's another way to get in touch with scary ghost creatures at this point and Laine looks through the glass lens in the planchette, eventually seeing a blonde girl with her mouth sewn shut (!) behind one of her compatriots. In a scene scored like it's much, much more frightening than it actually is, the planchette moves around and spells out RUN SHE IS COMING, and then MOTHER as an identifier of who "she" is. "Mother" is a woman with her jaw unhinged and falling down like she's trying to eat an entire turducken; we only get a little glimpse of her before the board and planchette are flying around in the semi-lighted kitchen. Sensibly, the entire five-man-band beats feet out of the house and Sarah asks what's going to happen to them, now that they've made contact with the same thing that apparently caused Debbie to kill herself.

The next day at school is understandably awkward between all five of the YA Ghostbusters. And that night, Laine goes through a flash drive that she inherited from Debbie looking for some clues. Turns out there's some kind of video diary in which Debbie reveals that she found the Ouija board that's been the main prop in the film so far while cleaning the attic of her parents' place. Sarah walks in while there's video playing of Debbie getting the HI FRIEND message herself, and there's a repeated flicker of distortion in the video that will get freeze-framed later to reveal either 1) The girl with her mouth sewn shut or 2) The "mother" creature, presumably the one who did that to her. Because that is what you do in a movie like this.

It's time for a setpiece, so Isabelle goes home to floss and take a bath. She hallucinates the floss as stitches holding her mouth shut and her eyes go solid white. Then she levitates in the air and gets dropped skull-first onto the sink and is therefore written out of the film. The next scene we get is a Sensitive Bearded School Counselor who has a pamphlet on coping with grief; Laine walks out of the meeting, an act that will most assuredly get added to her permanent record. Trevor and Pete are less than thrilled that they're apparently on a ghostly hit list and Laine's got plenty of fully earned guilt to go along with her existing survivors' guilt from Debbie's "suicide". She tells Trevor that she needs help to figure out how to placate or stop the angry ghost, and that Debbie apparently woke it up when she played Spirit World Solitaire with the vintage board.

So it's back again to Debbie's Parents' place, but this time Laine goes up into the attic where Debbie found the vintage board some time ago. Pete wanders around in a failed attempt to generate some suspense while Laine unearths some old photos from about sixty or seventy years ago in a box in the attic as well as an obligatory creepy doll that she drops when Pete yells to see if she's okay. The lighting in the attic scenes is amazingly bad at a couple points, and when the obligatory Ghost Presence walks into the flashlight beam the scene is cut off before there can be a payoff. Instead there's just a jump cut to Pete and Laine looking through the photos and other assorted stuff in the attic box. If they find a serial killer's home movies, we could be looking at a somewhat better movie.

With half an hour to go in the movie, Pete uses the internet to find news articles about a missing girl from the Fifties with the intials D.Z. "Missing" doesn't mean "dead", though, and despite official suspicion that Doris' mother killed her, the body was never found and she just stayed a missing person. Her sister eventually killed her mother and is now in a mental hospital; we get a one-scene wonder with Lin Shaye as the surviving sister Pauline, in a wheelchair in the asylum for another exposition drop. Doris and Pauline's mother was a spirit medium who used Doris as a possession candidate to serve as a volunteer voicebox for whatever spirits were nearby. Eventually Mom cracked up under the pressure of talking to too many spirits or something. She sewed Doris' mouth shut prior to her "disappearance", and then things were pretty quiet on the ghostly front at that house till Debbie started screwing around with a Ouija board she found out of nowhere. Pauline freely confesses to killing her mother to stop her from killing anyone else, and says there's more than one spirit that never left that house.

Pauline says the existing connection between Laine and her friends and the house-bound spirits is going to get stronger and that they'll be able to see Doris and the Mom Ghost without looking through the planchette soon enough. Also, it turns out that with at least one body on the premises, the Debbie's Parents' house was itself technically a graveyard, so when Debbie was going solo with the board she broke two rules simultaneously. In order to stop anyone else in the Paranormal Happenings Club from being killed by the Mom Ghost, they have to find Doris' body, cut the stitches apart on her mouth (assuming there's any flesh left after seven decades and no embalming), and then hope like hell that the Doris Ghost can stop the Mom Ghost from killing everyone.

So down in the basement everyone goes, and after the proper amount of time has been spent creeping around in the basement Trevor gets hauled into a separate room by a ghost (after a nifty shot where it looks like he's casting an extra shadow, because the ghost next to him is standing in a flashlight beam). Pete runs into the room to help Trevor; the door slams itself shut and they're on their own while Laine crawls through a ventilation duct looking for a corpse. She finds the old seance room in a boarded-up section of the basement (which must be about the size of a city block from all the crawling and exploring), finds Doris' corpse wrapped up in a sheet and the flashlight turns off while she looks for a pair of scissors to take care of the stitches in the body's mouth. The Mom Ghost shows up while Laine's working on the stitches but the Doris Ghost shows up to banish it (or something, I guess). It's two or three jump scares in a row that really don't land. The movie's got so many arbitrary rules about what's going on and they're introduced so briefly that there's not really much of an impact when things happen.

Speaking of a lack of impact when events happen and arbitrary Ghost Stuff going on, Pete sees Debbie in his bedroom when everyone goes back home after the spirit laying. Then it turns into Doris-with-mouth-sewn-shut, who screams at him, and then Pete has his mouth sewn shut, and he dies. Because of reasons. Whatever you're thinking as you read those last two sentences, the movie manages to rise below your expectations. And when Laine goes back to the asylum to talk to Pauline about what happened, we get a third-act nonsense twist:  The kids were both evil all along, and the homicidal mom who tortured her daughter by sewing her mouth shut was the good guy! Pauline gets whipped into a shouting frenzy while threatening Laine, and a couple security guards at the hospital push her wheelchair away from Laine (why security guards instead of orderlies? You got me--maybe the wardrobe department didn't want to clean any white clothes that week).

Nona provides more exposition out of nowhere about how to sever the supernatural connection between the spirit of a murder victim and its future victims; they have to burn Doris' body and the Ouija board at the same time. How the hell Nona knows this is completely unexplained. Also, I thought she was the housekeeper but Wikipedia thinks she's Laine and Sarah's grandmother. Maybe she is. This movie's allergic to basic exposition. Nona tells them twice to destroy the body and the board. Then Sarah and Laine set out to do that, with Nona deciding that having told them what to do, she doesn't need to help. Or maybe she doesn't want to risk her life for these dumbasses.

Trevor gets telekinetically scream-tossed into the backyard pool and drowns, tangled up in the pool cover that he ironically couldn't get a hold of back in the first act. It's another jump-scare-and-then-a-thing-happens death in a movie that's had two of them so far that I can remember; without telling the audience what the Doris Ghost is capable of doing, how are we supposed to be scared or concerned for anyone? How is the viewer supposed to engage with the material? Did the filmmakers ever ask themselves these questions? Why am I asking you?

Well, the Gang of Five is now down to Laine and Sarah. They go to the basement to torch the board and dead body, and Sarah gets yanked into the duct that Laine crawled through earlier. Before Sarah can get Ghost Murdered, Laine has a flash of inspiration and starts playing with the Ouija board, summoning the Doris Ghost to her rather than letting it kill her sister. Then, when she gets possessed, Debbie's spirit shows up to force Doris' spirit away from her friend. Which would have been a fantastic scene if the director hadn't just staged it like someone walked into the room. Oh, hey, Sarah walked into the room, too, carrying Doris' body with her. She walks to the furnace and tosses the body in (this shot is unintentionally hilarious because it's filmed so matter-of-factly, but it's not worth watching the film to get to it). Laine chucks the board into the furnace also as well and the Doris Ghost vanishes in a puff of mediocre special effects wizardry.

There's still nine minutes left in the movie, though, so Laine and Sarah talk for a little about how much they miss their friends (that they got killed). At least this time Laine doesn't want to try and talk to her friends' ghosts via planchette and board. Sarah feels a little sympathy for Doris, since she was (according to this line of dialogue and sorta hinted at by Pauline back at the mental hospital) possessed by evil spirits rather than being 100% evil on her own. Later that night Laine flosses (in a setup for seeing her with her mouth sewn shut, except the movie doesn't do that) and then she finds the planchette on her bedroom nightstand, where there was no planchette before. Like a dumbass she looks through the lens but the movie slams to black before the audience finds out if she sees anything else.


The only thing I like less than having just watched Ouija is the prospect of the prequel for next year's HubrisWeen. Maybe I'll blank-tile a movie that starts with N or P instead. This was a film put together out of jump scares and pieces of other films, designed to get teenagers to jump every so often and nothing else. I don't mind a harmless thrill ride of a horror film (and there's nothing inherently bad about the lower rating; The Sixth Sense was also a PG-13 ghost story, but it was a masterpiece of jolting the audience with a carefully constructed screenplay and some great performances by actors who don't ordinarily rise to the occasion). For sure, an adaptation of a game that didn't have a storyline was a strike against this movie, but I don't think it's really based on the Ouija board after all. I think I just watched the first movie based on a paint-by-numbers kit.

"How in the heck did you write six thousand words on this piece of garbage without making a SEE YOU IN THE CHARTS joke?"


  1. I actually thought the bathroom head-bonk scene was good, in that it wasn't the death I was expecting at that point-- I was all set for a spectral drowning, with the victim de-glamouring at the last moment so there could be a brief yet fruitless struggle. That goodwill was squandered by the lavish use of Hero's Death Exemption in the climax, though.

    I imagine I can save you from any lingering Battleship temptation:

    - the dialogue is much less believable than this film's;
    - it suggests that a mothballed battleship can get up a head of steam in something like 15 minutes, and that perhaps as many as three dozen people can fight it, as long as ten of them are WWII and Korea vets who remember their old jobs.

    Hopefully that's inoculated you.

  2. I checked my own collection, and boy, you weren't kidding about the lack of "o" movies.

    Have you seen "Odd Thomas"? It's about a guy who can see monsters that congregate when someone is about to die (they feed on fear, I think). Not a complete waste of time, as I recall.

  3. Battleship is really, really low on the list for things I'm tempted to see, but thank you anyway.

    The prequel to Ouija was directed by the guy behind Oculus, which I dug a heck of a lot more than I thought I was going to. It might be actually good, as opposed to "good for this kind of thing".

  4. I hadn't seen Odd Thomas, but I gave up on the book about a fifth of the way through. There's bound to be something or other I can throw in the DVD player next year, and honestly it isn't really HubrisWeen without something unexpectedly great and something bland as a palate cleanser.

  5. Odd Thomas is leant strange poignancy by Anton Yelchin's untimely demise, but aside from that I thought it watched exactly like a Dean Koontz novel. The Ouija prequel seems like it was better than this Ouija movie, but still kind of weak in the plot department.

  6. I'm not sure I want to commit myself to 7000 words of "Anton Yelchin is dead and that makes me sad", because if it watches like a Dean Koontz movie that's about all there's going to be to say about it.