Clay Liford (Wuss) Talks Stiles White’s Ouija

An Austin filmmaker visits the "Taj Mahal of catcalling" to watch America's number one movie, a low-budget horror flick based on a board game...

I’m a relatively new contributor to this site, but as I’m sure Nick Dawson will attest, I’ve rapidly begun laying claim to the worst movies possible for review. Because, let’s face it, it’s more fun to write about crap movies than quality ones… at least, if you’re lazy like me. So you can imagine that when Ouija was announced, this cat pounced on it like a can of day-old tuna.

My friend Michelle and I decided to make the pilgrimage to my favorite theater in which to absorb the worst of the worst. An “audience participation hub” where you wanna see trash horror films, because even if the film blows (as it invariably does), the catcalls will more than make up for it. The Highland Galaxy 10 in Austin, Texas, is the Taj Mahal of catcallin’. Like, next-level shit. At a screening last year of Texas Chainsaw 3D, which happened to be released a few weeks ahead of the new iPhone, one of the characters (some police officer dude) used his mobile as a flashlight. Upon seeing the make and model, one particularly enthusiastic catcaller yelled out, “OH MY GOD!!! He’s got an iPhone 5!!!” Man, was she excited. Movie: Sucked. Experience: Amazing. Thank you, iPhone fan lady!

I mention this because Ouija is a movie so bereft of any joy or animus that the normally ribald Galaxy crowd simply couldn’t muster the will to bring even their paltry C-game. The movie kills all fight. It’s a gravitational vortex of compromised vision and passion. Not a single soul cared if “that bitch went in that damn room.” You can’t have fun with it on a Troll 2 sort of level because everyone involved in Ouija’s physical production performed with a certain degree of competency. The problem lies primarily with the dubious nature of this wanton cash-grab. I don’t want to devote significant space to attacking the narrative (though I will interject a few scattered notes I took during the screening). It’s enough to know that it’s just a series of isolated dumb kids (never play alone, you dummies!) screwing with a murderous demon board in dimly lit rooms with limited emergency exits. Rather, I think this film is the perfect launchpad for a discussion of what’s wrong with the corporation-fueled, PG-13 modern horror film.


5:00: Debbie, the “first victim,” hangs herself by dropping down from the chandelier by her neck. Debbie Downer. These are my jokes.

In my limited research, I discovered that the movie released is not the movie Michael Bay and crew initially set out to make. The original concept was for a $100 million Pirates of the Carribbean-style adventure film. I imagine something like Jumanji with ghosts. That sounds like fun, right? Well, cooler heads (or tighter wallets) prevailed, and literally $95 million was cut from the budget. I’m no mathematician, but that’s 95 percent of your budget! Ooof! I can practically smell the board meeting to determine what to do with the remaining five. Basically, let’s make a cheap knock-off of The Conjuring (or an expensive knock-off of Paranormal Activity — your choice). This bargain-basement Ouija almost comes off as an adaptation of a questionable stage play. There are no more than two primary locations in the entire film. The few excursions beyond the main house seem like studio-note afterthoughts at best (if any notes were even lobbed at this travesty). Would it kill them to have a single ding dang scene at one of those 24-hour psychic-tarot-reading joints that are literally everywhere?

35:00: If these kids say “planchette” one more freaking time… Just call it a pointer or a ghosty-view thing. How does every kid randomly know this 25¢ Scrabble word? (Will Scrabble be the next Plantinum Dunes cash-grab?)

Here’s my weird thought: If you’re gonna make a picture of such brazen transparency simply to separate the rubes from their shiny pennies, you should at least have the decency to try to conceal the fact that you’re hungrily reaching for their wallets. The amount of effort expended here is roughly equivalent to every high school AP English paper I furiously wrote in the class just before it was due. I can, off the top of my head, think of no fewer than 10 better ideas for a $5 million Ouija board movie. If you work for Hasbro Studios, email me for said list of better ideas. I’ll let ’em go real cheap. Look, when Witchboard, the 1986 Tawny Kitaen vehicle, schools your ass hard with its far superior (yet still inept) take on evil Parker Bros. (now Hasbro) games, you are fucking up at life (and art). I mean, the Witchboard writer actually went to a bricks-and-mortar library to do actual “research” on the philosophy of demonic possession. Characters spout dialogue about cool things like “Progressive Entrapment,” which is the evil school of philosophy that demons use to take your dumb ass over when you try to talk to them with a ghosty-pointer-thing. It’s a “fresh” idea for most people. Not a good one, necessarily, but at least that movie put in the effort. Ouija was made in the era of Wikipedia. No excuses, people.

At the very least, don’t make your dumb wooden board-game movie just another generic ghost-demon-possession yarn. This movie would have been crazy baller in the ’80s, the ultimate era of “how did this ever get made?” I love horror flicks that feature inanimate objects terrifying dumb teens. Stuff where the angle is the car is the killer, or the doll is freaking bat-shit crazy and will jump on your stupid face and kill you to death! There was a movie called Dolls which had the tagline, “They Walk. They Talk. They Kill.” Maximum Overdrive featured not only an electric kitchen knife (whatever happened to those?) that killed, but also a freaking Coke machine that shot Cokes into a dude’s balls. And it shot him with Coke cans so hard, he died from a Coke in the balls!!!

If you embrace the inherent stupidity of the “living vehicle/furniture/board game” genre, you really can’t fuck up. But no, they had to get all Christopher Nolan with it and try to make it about something deeper. Only their something happens to be the exact same pretentious something every single other stupid ghost movie is currently about. You know, one, that the ghosts are restless spirits and the products of bad family domestic abuse, and two, that they want to take that shit out on your dumb teenage kids. Snoozers! At no point did the Ouija board jump up off the table and slap some dumb kid in the face. And the ghosty-pointer-thing never once stabbed anyone in the eye! It’s got a sharp point, people! Do I have to draw you a map??? I just saw Annabelle. That movie was about an evil doll. The stupid doll never got up and walked or talked. And it certainly didn’t kill anyone. Wasted. Opportunity. Chucky wept.

56:00: If your scare-em-up is rated PG-13, don’t draw extra attention to the fact by having body-piercing scenes where nothing more than air comes out of the dang body holes. Air. Not blood.

By the way, Ouija is so friggin’ cheap it couldn’t even afford adults! There are practically no actors over the age of 22 in this sucker. I’m just going to say it. When your most prominent actor is Lin Shaye — who apparently first stepped in front of the camera because she worked as a secretary in her brother Bob Shaye’s office when he needed someone to play a random secretary — you know you’re in trouble. And I love Lin Shaye, so no offense. She’s in Critters. Critters is amazing. Ouija, however, can suck it.

Oh, the other token adult is the wise old Mexican housekeeper, who somehow knows all the completely random and arbitrary rules regarding the proper usage and handling of your evil Ouija board. And she’s only around to spout some old-timey ethnic wisdom so awkward and hoary that it tickles the racist watchdog center of your brain. If the housekeeper happened to be black, I do not doubt she would have “consulted the bones” for advice. I mean, it’s that bad. So we’ve got Lin Shaye in bugfuck crazy wheelchair-mental-institution mode, and literally the exact same wise Mexican lady from Paranormal Activity 2. Meet your adult actors!

1:04:00. The “spirit” is a really fast writer. It’s as if the filmmakers were embarrassed by the terribly boring conceit of communication one letter at a time. They just needed to plow through it, so they made the spirit a speed freak.

So, yeah, I don’t know what the solution is here. It seems that the fastest way to a green light these days is audience familiarity. Not concept, story or character. Just a simple, “Oh hey, that’s the name of a product I once saw in my local grocery/bookstore/toy store. Wouldn’t that make a somewhat actual movie/TV show/web series?!” I’m not revealing a great epiphany here. But this time, the degree of brazenness on display is really off-putting. Oh, and we really have no one to blame but ourselves. Ouija was number one on its opening weekend. Yes, the movie based on a game that doesn’t even have characters or a story is the number friggin’ one movie in America! I’m walking around my house right now. Looking for inspiration for my next film. Ooh! Wait. There’s my bottle of Palmolive dish detergent! And hey, look, it’s Cap’n Crunch! Which, incidentally, starts from a much higher place in terms of filmic potential, in that it has characters (the Captain and his enemies, the Soggies) and at least a bit of backstory. You know what? Fuck Ouija and fuck this review.* I’m out.

*Just kidding. I love you, Nick.

Clay Liford is an independent filmmaker living in Austin, TX. He has written and directed several shorts (such as My Mom Smokes Weed and Earthling) and the features Earthling and Wuss, and shot/edited over 20 other features, including St. Nick and Gayby. His latest feature, Slash, world premiered at SXSW 2016 and is currently on the festival circuit. You can follow him on Twitter here.