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I watch hundreds of movies each year, a habit I developed long before someone offered to pay me to do so. Now, I’d like to tell you that out of the thousands of films I’ve viewed over the decades, none of them were of the type described by Saint Pope John Paul II back in 1995 when he lamented movies which “distort the truth, oppress genuine freedom, or show scenes of sex and violence offensive to human dignity.”
Unfortunately, such a declaration would be a lie. The sad truth is, having not always lived a Christian life, I’ve seen plenty of movies like that. In fact, given a few minutes, I could probably toss off a list of ten, maybe twenty such films that are so morally corrupt that they have the potential to damage a person’s soul. What might be surprising to some, however, is that almost none of the offenders are horror movies.
I bring this up because it seems almost every time I review a horror film, especially if it’s one containing a storyline involving something demonic, at least one well meaning reader questions whether or not a Christian should ever watch such a movie. Good for them for doing so. After all, we’re supposed to watch out for one another. But as Fr. Gary Thomas, exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, explained in an interview with author Patti Maguire Armstrong when asked about watching scary movies, “I don’t think you open yourself up to evil just by going to a movie. The problem is when evil is glorified, which is very different than going to a movie on the topic of evil.”
Though it may sound like a counterintuitive statement given some of the ghoulish goings-on they portray, the fact is most horror movies rarely glorify evil. Take for instance “Ouija,” the new fright flick creeping its way into theaters this weekend. If you’ve run across the commercials, then you’ve no doubt seen some of the icky imagery on display in the film. Rotting corpses, mouths sewn shut, dead people screaming, you know, the usual stuff. But what the ads neglect to tell you is that the plotline of “Ouija” ends up adhering to a moral principle straight out of Deuteronomy, the one that tells us that those who “consult ghosts and spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead” are in for a world of hurt.
The movie begins with a short prologue in which two young girls, Debbie and Laine, are shown playing with a Ouija board. While this might seem odd at first glance, keep in mind, you can easily pick one of these things up at your local Toys “R” Us for less than the cost of a video game. Apparently there’s plenty of folks out there who think that nothing says good old fashioned family fun like summoning the dead.
Anyway, the girls discuss the basic rules of the game: never play alone, never play in a cemetery, always be polite and say goodbye when you’re done conversing with the spirits, you know, the usual stuff. Fast forward a few years, and we see the teenaged Debbie (Shelley Hennig) attempting to burn a Ouija board for some unknown reason. Unfortunately, the stubborn thing refuses to go up in smoke, and the distraught Debbie suddenly finds herself compelled to take her own life.
Laine (Olivia Cooke) is devastated by her lifelong friend’s mysterious death and upon finding the Ouija in Debbie’s room, decides it would be a good idea to try and contact Debbie’s spirit in order to get some answers and say her final farewells. Both Laine’s sister Sarah (Ana Coto) and their small circle of friends believe this to be a big waste of time, but everyone goes along with the plan hoping it will allow Laine some closure. And so, as Act One closes, the five teens gather inside Debbie’s house to play a game of Ouija.
Even if you’ve only seen a handful of horror movies throughout your life, you still know exactly what happens in “Ouija” from this point on. The teens contact a spirit they believe to be Debbie, but it isn’t. Starting with the group’s only minority character (of course), the evil presence slowly begins to possess and kill the teens, arranging each death so it appears to be an accident. The slowly dwindling survivors consult with a marginally religious relative who provides them with some non-religious mumbo jumbo way of getting rid of the ghost (Would it have been so hard to call an exorcist?), if only they can live long enough to see it done. You know, the usual stuff.
And yet, despite it’s by-the-numbers script, “Ouija” isn’t a terrible movie. Almost all of the teens are TV veterans, so they know how to act in front of a camera. More important, none of them are obnoxious, a common ailment which so often plagues these kinds of movies. There’s no character you secretly hope will meet their doom in “Ouija.”
In addition to that, there’s also something about the structure and feel of the film that suggests first time director Stiles White, who also co-wrote the movie, is attempting (semi-successfully) to duplicate the atmosphere of the original “A Nightmare On Elm Street.” Part of it is the general look of the film. Part of it is that kids seem to live in a universe where most of the adults are either absent or clueless to the invisible realities the teens are struggling with. And part of it is that the always enjoyable Lin Shaye, who had a small role in “Nightmare,” shows up for a bit part in “Ouija” as well. Whatever it is, it’s pretty clear what movie had an impact on a young Stiles White.
So, “Ouija” isn’t all that bad, it just isn’t particularly overwhelming either, at least not for those who have seen a lot of the usual stuff. The film probably works best as a kind of beginner’s horror movie. There’s zero sex, little cursing, and almost no gore. Some of the ghosts look horrific, but honestly no more so than a lot of the masks you can find on the shelves at your local costume shop. Basically, “Ouija” is like an episode of Goosebumps with the training wheels taken off. And given that the story doesn’t glorify evil, but sticks to the time honored Biblical principle that children shouldn’t play with dead things, I can think of a lot worse ways to spend an evening with your young teens this Halloween season than watching “Ouija.”
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.