It’s the rare Hasbro/Michael Bay production that may actually dissuade audiences from buying the product it’s selling, but aside from that rather charming distinction, “Ouija” is fairly routine stuff. A tale of two teenage sisters, their very expendable friends and the creepy board game that just won’t leave them alone, this silly but straight-faced supernatural thriller manages to elicit an occasional shudder in between cheap jolts and false scares, emerging as a feat of competent direction (by debuting helmer Stiles White) over derivative scripting (by White and writing partner Juliet Snowden). Friendly box office spirits are already smiling upon Universal’s Oct. 24 release, and should continue to hover at least through Halloween weekend.
“Calm down, it’s only a game,” whispers young Debbie (Claire Beale) as she introduces her terrified friend, Laine (Afra Tully), to the mysteries of Ouija, using a heart-shaped planchette and an ornate board etched with letters and numbers to communicate with the spirit realm. But as anyone who’s seen “The Exorcist,” the “Witchboard” movies or any number of other occult chillers could tell you, Ouija is a game you play at your peril — a lesson that the teenage Debbie (Shelley Hennig) is destined to learn the hard way. After carelessly engaging in a solo session with the board, which is apparently about as smart as talking about Fight Club, she goes into a weird trance and hangs herself with a string of Christmas lights.
For horror-savvy viewers, the image of Debbie dangling from the ceiling may suggest a bloodless homage to Dario Argento’s classic “Suspiria,” but the rest of “Ouija” falls somewhere between a tween-friendly version of “The Conjuring” and a live-action episode of “Scooby-Doo.” Determined to find out why her happy, well-adjusted best friend killed herself, Laine (Olivia Cooke, “Bates Motel”) hits upon the brilliant-stupid idea of using the board to contact Debbie, inviting their respective boyfriends (Daren Kagasoff, Douglas Smith); their close gal-pal, Isabelle (Bianca Santos); and Laine’s sullen sister, Sarah (Ana Coto), to participate in a nighttime seance at the scene of the crime.
Soon enough, the usual paranormal portents emerge, and it’s not just the Ouija board that starts acting of its own accord: Stoves light up, doors open and close, dental floss takes on terrifying new properties, and lights flicker on and off with ominous frequency, suggesting a call to either an exorcist or an electrician might be in order. As the body count rises and the planchette’s movements become increasingly frenzied, Laine begins experiencing ghastly visions of a young girl and her mother whose souls have clearly not been laid to rest (their rotting visages brought to impressively freaky life by special-effects makeup artist Mike Smithson), ushering in an obligatory murder-in-retrospect backstory that, while not particularly complicated, has the effect of making Laine and her comrades seem even more underdeveloped by comparison.
Clearly, White and Snowden (whose recent writing credits include the exorcism thriller “The Possession” and the Nicolas Cage vehicle “Knowing”) are trying to pare down the plot to a barer-than-bare minimum — as evidenced by the way they quickly introduce characters like Laine’s dad (Matthew Settle) and Debbie’s mom (Robyn Lively), only to hurry them out of town like unwanted chaperones. Far from seeming efficient, the storytelling merely feels sluggish and noncommittal; there’s so little in the way of connective tissue, it’s more jarring than it should be when the characters are forced to acknowledge casualty after casualty (“I miss them all the time,” says one, none too convincingly), or when Laine’s grandmother (Vivis) periodically emerges from nowhere to issue dire warnings about contacting the dead.
As has become the norm with so much contemporary horror, most of the scares in “Ouija” are gimmicky and repetitive “gotcha!” moments, owing more to d.p. David Emmerichs’ whip pans and a series of ear-splitting thwacks and shrieks than to any deeper, more psychologically grounded shivers. Still, White, a longtime special-effects maven before he and Snowden shifted into screenwriting, demonstrates a reasonable grasp of how to use silence and stillness to build tension and atmosphere, and every so often he strikes an effective note of dread — sometimes even in broad daylight, where a simple bike ride through an empty tunnel can raise a surprising amount of gooseflesh.
Anchoring a mixed-bag younger cast, Cooke makes an engaging enough heroine, managing to seem more likable than exasperating even when she’s doing things like taking refuge in a dark closet, climbing by herself into a dusty attic, or crawling her way into an underground burial chamber. Ably stealing her two scenes as a wheelchair-bound mental patient with some unexpected advice for Laine, Lin Shaye (a fixture of the “Insidious” horror franchise) achieves something the rest of “Ouija” only intermittently manages, turning cliches into horror-movie gold.