There’s an old story about screenwriter Charles MacArthur asking Charlie Chaplin how he’d show a woman slipping on a banana peel. Chaplin said he’d show her stepping over the banana peel, then disappearing into the manhole on the other side. That story flashed through my mind a couple of times during Ouija, which at times enacts the horror-movie equivalent of Chaplin’s comedy gag. It builds to a jump scare and distracts us with what we think was the big, sudden jump reveal — and then it pounces. When it works, it’s a wonderful, elemental thing. I’m not going to lie: I actually cackled with terror and delight at a couple of moments.
The story is absurdly simple. A young woman, Debbie (Shelley Hennig), mysteriously dies after playing with a Ouija board. Her friends, among them her BFF Laine (Olivia Cooke), attempt to commune with her spirit, at which point eerie things start to happen, including the appearance of the words “Hi friend” in various places — carved into a wooden desk, written on a car window, scrawled on the wall of a dark tunnel that nobody should have come near in the first place — I mean, Jesus. As often happens, it turns out the friends have managed to commune not with Debbie, but with an older, more troubled spirit. Or maybe two. I’ll let you find out for yourselves.
Ouija is confident, meat-and-potatoes horror, and that’s a lot harder to pull off than it sounds. The film has plenty of cheap jump-scares — usually, they’re accompanied by the requisite musical body-blows on the soundtrack or shrieking sound-effects — but it earns them honestly, through the patient way it builds. Director Stiles White (a former F/X guy and screenwriter) has a precise, clean style and knows how to direct our attention. Shadows appear on walls, but we don’t notice them until someone else notices them, which somehow makes them scarier. So many horror movies these days begin deliberately but then get mired in a mess of shrill, nonstop ante-upping. They don’t seem to understand that a movie that doesn’t try to blow the world apart — that sticks to its style and its pacing — can often be more frightening.
Part of the film’s efficiency lies in its concept. The whole joy of playing with a spirit board is the promise of a glimpse into the beyond, however absurd we may think such a glimpse may be. That collective, overt buy-in — of audience and of characters — means the story unfolds in an atmosphere of tension that gears us up early on and never quite lets us go. Ouija isn’t going to redefine the horror genre, but sometimes, it’s just nice to have a movie that knows what it’s doing and does it well.