In the sixties, a widowed mother of two, Alice, has a fortune telling business in her house where her two daughters Lina and Doris help her into tricking customers that they are speaking to deceased friends and family. One night her eldest daughter, Lina sneaks out to go booze it up with her friends and ends up playing a board game called Ouija. Lina knows all the tricks of the trade and immediately figures out how the board game works to scare people which she then suggests her mother buy to spice up her act. Alice ends up buying the board and starts getting it ready to use on customers, however upon toying with it she unleashes something upon her household, specifically on her daughter Doris who begins using the board to try to contact her deceased father. As Doris becomes more attached to the board she begins hearing voices and channeling spirits to other customers and her mother, who begins to think Doris has the true gift passed down in her family. However the more they use the board the more Doris is taken over by spirits and the family's life descends into a chaos that they cannot escape.
The greatest thing in this movie is the family dynamic between Alice and her children. They all know the séance business and what "tropes" to use to influence people into thinking something supernatural has occurred. This is also a wink at the audience throwing us misleads and clichés that we think are actual scares but in truth are a hoax put on by the family or the members of the family disproving them subtly. The first jump scare quickly descends into comedic moments that make you love the characters and gives subtle nods that they are in on the cliches with you that make them so fun. These scenes also really show how close the family is, but also how lost they are without their father and husband. Alice has slightly given up her religious faith and turned others Faith's into profit but also justifies it by helping those who want to believe in something better for their deceased loved ones by giving them comfort in her shows. She truly wants to give others the faith she has lost. Lina being a rebellious teenager wants to go out and find comfort in young love or alcohol, but still tethers herself to helping her mother and sister. It's almost like she sees herself as the one keeping them sane which troubles her relationship with her sister and mother as the "miracles" performed deeply upset her. Doris being the youngest is confused by her mother's trade, wondering why they trick people. She still remains devout in her faith finding help from her principal who is a priest at her school. She prays to her father every night to help them pay their bills and get them through their struggles, it is this child like faith that ultimately is her undoing.
Flanagan beautifully sets up this family that we truly care about. He's done some great character work in the past but this is his masterpiece in loving characterization. I don't think I've cared about characters this much in a mainstream horror film since the original Conjuring. Right when you care he pulls out a bat and slowly taps your head until finally knocking you out by the end of the film almost as hard as the ending of Oculus. The Ouija has three rules, Gremlins style, and this family separately and without knowing breaks each one leaving the innocence of Doris the most susceptible to the evil that is unleashed. The funny thing is the powers flowing through Doris start off as a blessing that Alice sees as her chance to truly help people with. The world of the dead helps solve their money woes and the woes of many others who come to them grieving. It's very much like Poltergeist in that these spirits seem to help and love the family, then one night like Carol Anne, Doris is completely taken. She is still physically there but within her body resides spirits of evil that not only mentally hurt the family but showcase some really horrific body horror. Flanagan slowly taps you in the head with fun and intriguing supernatural views then quickly slaps you with horrific contortionist level scares and demonic imagery that is seen through the glass eye of the Ouija board.
The finale is pretty intense with some harsh deaths and intense scares as well as some very cool looking creatures but it's the dialogue that truly terrifies. One scene in particular is an entire monologue that Doris gives describing what it is like to be choked to death from every sensation you feel before you die which is so perfectly delivered that my skin crawled as I heard it. Father Tom, the girls principal, comes into play helping Lina figure out what's going on with Doris and digging up the history on the spirits within Doris that could be a whole other movie on its own Grindhouse style. The one gripe I have that isn't the film's fault as much as the marketing is the origin of the evil itself seems to have been actor Doug Jones who can be seen in the trailer to a terrifying effect. Doug Jones was in Flanagan's first film Absentia and for those who don't know famously played Abe Sapien in Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy. He's an amazing stunt and body actor who I could easily imagine what he looked like as Father Tom described what I believed his character was. For whatever reason the scene is not in the film, but does not deter it. I would love to see what that scene was though.
Flanagan wrote the script with Jeff Howard whom he has collaborated on films with since Oculus and I have to give Howard credit for helping script such a solid story where every aspect of these characters and their way of life fit into place in the movie perfectly. Of course the script is certainly enhanced with the 60's aesthetic, music choice and throwback shots that harken back to older styles of filmmaking that helped me fall in love with it. From the old school Universal logo to the old school title card that introduced the film, everything tickled my nostalgia funny bone. The shots are gorgeous and so well done I couldn't help but smile. It's a nice slow burn descent into madness with plenty of scares and characters to care and root for that left me begging for more in this universe. Five Ouija spirits out of Five!