The rare horror sequel made with considerably more wit, craft, and imagination than its predecessor, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” feels less like the continuation of a budding franchise than an apology for what went wrong the first time. Writer-director Mike Flanagan (who proved his horror bona fides with the 2013 sleeper “Oculus”) takes over the creative reins from helmer Stiles White and institutes a welcome dramatic shift from the rote terrorized teens plot of 2014’s “Ouija.” And yet as much as Flanagan does to set his film apart, the follow-up is ultimately bogged down by the backstory baggage it’s forced to deliver.
Serving up enough solid scares to satisfy fans of “Conjuring”/“Insidious”-style haunted house horror, “Origin of Evil” should benefit from a perfectly timed pre-Halloween release and no significant genre competition in the marketplace to post sturdy box office. It could even best the $100 million worldwide gross of “Ouija,” if that picture didn’t decimate audience curiosity in the concept.
Hurtling backward in time some 50 years before the events of “Ouija,” “Origin of Evil” opens promisingly on a seance in 1967 at the home of California medium Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), who firmly believes in the comfort she provides to clients looking to commune with the dead, even if her tactics are pure flimflam. Her assistants in staging the well-intentioned scams are daughters Lina (Annalise Basso), a rebellious teen, and Doris (Lulu Wilson), a doe-eyed moppet.
Still adjusting to life as a widow following her husband’s sudden death in a car accident, single mom Alice struggles to pay the bills and longs to find a genuine connection to the afterlife. Enter the trendy board game Ouija — still being peddled by Hasbro today, and the raison d’être for the franchise — which Alice purchases to help spice up her presentations, but as little Doris discovers, also provides authentic communication with spirits, including her father.
While the characters are kept in the dark about what’s truly going on, the audience knows virtually from the get-go that Doris isn’t making contact with friendly ghosts. Soon enough the girl is possessed by an oily black demon (Doug Jones), who hides behind the innocent mask of a cherubic pre-teen. Though Alice buys into what the demon is selling and Lina is more suspicious, it takes priest and widower Father Tom (Henry Thomas) to see through the disguise.
Flanagan fully embraces the ’60s setting, opening the film with a classic Universal logo and retro title card, and layering the action with period atmosphere. He and co-writer Jeff Howard have a ball with signifiers of the era — such as the space program and Nazi experiments — at the same time they build a credible dynamic between Alice and her daughters. Each of the three primary actresses gets room to shine, with Reaser’s open-hearted portrayal of a woman processing grief and Wilson’s eerie embodiment of a child overcome by evil worthy of especially high marks.
Michael Fimognari’s elegant deep-focus camerawork blends a nostalgic feel with contemporary technology and builds tension with disturbing bits of business unfolding in the background or extreme foreground of scenes. Flanagan’s own cutting delivers frequent jolts through jump scares, and unlike the tedious fake-outs of “Ouija,” there’s usually something on screen to justify the tactic here.
Relatively little blood is shed, though “Origin of Evil” offers up enough unsettling imagery and suspenseful situations to push the boundaries of the PG-13 rating and deliver a steady stream of scares to nearly distract from the story’s disappointing arc. After an hour or so spent establishing characters worth caring about, the narrative starts to devolve, and the more the film circles back to the mythology of “Ouija,” the sillier it gets. Much like the characters at its center, this prequel can’t outrun the ghosts of its past.