Say what you want about Hollywood’s baffling enthusiasm for the board-game movie, but the Ouija board was destined to inspire a horror film.
Ouija has attracted an eager audience of players and wannabe mediums ever since Charles Kennard and a band of Victorian entrepreneurs filed a patent rebranding the popular spiritualist toy the "talking board" in 1891. They bought into a game with suspense in its very infrastructure: A player (or multiple) lays his or her hands on a planchette and waits for the moment when it moves across letters and numbers to spell cryptic messages from spirits beyond—or plain gobbledygook, depending on your perspective. In the eras since, this eerie gameplay has had a way of inspiring great works—in the early 1900s, author Emily Grant Hutchings claimed it allowed her to give voice to Mark Twain; the game would later inspire Norman Rockwell and James Merrill would write several epic poems from conversations he conducted via Ouija, including a National Book Award winner.
Ouija has all the elements of a great experimental film that could practically write itself—recruit a few actors to play, introduce a board, record the messages conveyed, and fill out the backstory with fiction or nonfiction. The problem with the actual film version, Ouija, is that it’s pure Hollywood. A product of a corporate alliance between Universal Pictures and Hasbro, the joint forces have presumably given the filmmakers no room to experiment. Or, at least that's the way it looks in this film, where the game of Ouija becomes just another possessed item, an omen in the style of The Ring’s video tape or Annabelle’s Annabelle. While the rote screenwriting doesn’t kill the dark spirit of the world’s creepiest board game, it doesn’t channel it, either.