by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 24, 2014

Douglas Smith, Ana Coto and Olivia Cooke star in 'Ouija'
Douglas Smith, Ana Coto and Olivia Cooke star in 'Ouija'  (Source:Universal Pictures)

As it concerns their approach to popular cinema, American corporations recently took a sizeable gamble, and it paid off. They used to pay a relative pittance to air their commercials on television. Now they spend millions to make movies that are essentially commercials, and then sell the movies to us for $11 and change per showing. The Hasbro toy company, for instance: They gave us "Transformers," "Battleship," and now "Ouija." These products were first shilled as consumer items, then as films. This is the brand-ification of the American cinema. Product placement has evolved into product-movies.

For the uninitiated: Ouija boards are a line of alphabet boards ostensibly used to contact the dead. (The now-mass-produced items have a troublesome history full of ugly cultural re-appropriation committed for the sake of profit, as you can likely imagine.) Director Stiles White's film uses them as a conduit to create another one of those ghost-story haunted-house movies that have been so popular lately ("Annabelle," "The Conjuring," "Paranormal Activity,") rewriting the genre's basic structure only to fit in references to and comments regarding the focused-on product. "Come on," a character notes, trying to talk a peer into making use of the board to contact a dead friend. "They sell them in toy stores." I'm sure they do.

We can argue all day long about what makes the "Transformers" films successful, but there's one thing they have that "Ouija," "Battleship," and innumerable other pieces of branded cinematic entertainment do not: A fresh eye. Michael Bay's direction of those films offers viewers a maximalist visual experience unmatched by even the most creative comparable blockbusters. "Ouija," in turn, is nothing more than your standard Blumhouse Productions movie (that company has made a full collection of cheapo horror movies revolving around characters being terrorized in a single location, like the aforementioned "Paranormal" series), with references to the board game added, Mad Libs-style, into the screenplay.

If Hasbro want to sell us advertisements, they're going to need to be better than this. Yet, it seems besides the point to note that "Ouija" is a particularly bad film. (Aside from the board, the movie rigidly follows the genre standards for horror movies and ghost stories: Horny teenagers getting picked off one-by-one, check; gothic settings, check; creepy skeletons, innumerable scenes lit by flashlight, a wise older ethnic character who guides the white characters to safety -- check, check, check.) That's because this isn't trying to be "good" -- it's just trying to be "effective." And the effect that it's aiming for is selling you a Ouija board.

The camera hangs on the central board eternally, as if it were the Lost Ark of the Covenant. The film visually treats it like a religious object; centering it within the frame, panning over to it endlessly -- reminding us, over and over again, of its presence. That's the horror in this horror movie: The absolute control that the board has over the film itself. Filmed with such fetishistic detail, it beckons us, as all good advertising does: Buy me. Buy me.


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