In horror movies, people die. Not just minor characters, not just extras, but main characters—people we’ve come to know and care about over the course of the movie.
This is why most horror films are more realistic and morally superior to superhero movies. In movies like Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers, it’s a good bet that not only the protagonist but also his inner circle of warriors will survive to fight another day. This can result in some truly absurd survival scenarios: the time Batman survived after delivering a nuclear weapon that exploded in space, or when Spider-Man withstood a ten story drop onto the pavement.
This is why, however wildly fantastical they can be, horror movies can be an inoculation against the childish fantasy of the superhero film. Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Thing, Drag Me to Hell, Sinister—all these great films depict a main character, in some cases the featured protagonist, paying with his body or his soul (or both) for being greedy, rude, violent, disrespectful, or too hungry for power, especially the power to overturn death itself (Re-Animator). At their core, horror movies are deeply moral, including the terrific new chiller, Ouija: Origin of Evil. Spooky spoiler alert: I’m about to give away key plot points, so stop reading if you want to be scared when you go to see the film.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is set in 1967 Los Angeles. Elizabeth Reaser is Alice Lander, a loving single mother who struggles to make ends meet by playing Madame Zander, a séance medium who can put the grief-stricken in touch with their deceased loved ones. Madame Zander is a fake, and one day she brings home a Ouija board as a prop for her table-rattling sessions (a Ouija board was also a trigger for evil in The Exorcist). Alice’s nine-year-old daughter Doris is suddenly able to channel actual spirits, including that of her own late father, whose death left the family financially struggling. It soon becomes clear that the spirit possessing Doris is far from friendly, imitating the voices of loved ones to gain access to the family and placing them in great danger. The lesson: don’t use the occult to try to contact people who have died. Accept the limits of our humanity and the natural cycles of nature.
There’s more: the evil that has entered the house is the spirit of a former Nazi doctor who was interested in the occult and fled to America after the war. He continued to torture victims in the basement of the house that he owned, the one in which the Landers now live. The monster in Ouija is grounded in a real historical evil, and his depiction as an elusive black shadow with yellow-burning eyes is genuinely frightening. Ouija’s director Mike Flanagan, who also edited the film, has a compelling gift for understatement and atmospherics. He lets the plot develop and the characters reveal themselves over time, so that when the payoffs come they have been earned. There’s little blood or gore, but excellent sets and creepy lighting. In one scene, Alice wears a sexy dress to go have dinner with Father Tom, the local priest who has been noticing odd behavior coming from the Landers girls. One critic called the scene “meandering” and like the setup of a joke, perhaps not realizing that it was included to show how the evil creeping up from the basement has affected Alice, causing her to try to seduce a priest. It fits perfectly with the plot. The actors are all top notch, particularly Annalise Basso and LuLu Wilson as the two Flanders children.
So who gets it in the end? That would be giving away too much. Suffice it to say that there are life and death consequences. Like other well-done horror movies, and unlike so many of today’s superhero movies, Ouija reveals the real-life, and perhaps irreparable, consequences of violating our moral codes.