Review: ‘Ouija’ is by the numbers, full of mechanical scares and nothing else

“Ouija” is professionally made, a classically-styled ghost story/mystery, and perhaps the single strangest piece of product placement ever made. It is also, unfortunately, so by-the-numbers that it feels like it was made by a computer program designed to simulate horror films.

Juliet Snowden and Stiles White have been co-writers on films like “The Possession” and “Knowing,” but this time out, White is also directing. He knows what he's doing, and the way the film is made, it looks and feels exactly like it's supposed to feel. It is the very model of what Blumhouse wants to make. It's slick. It's simple and self-contained. It has a very immediate and understandable hook. It should work.

It doesn't, though, and it's an exercise in frustration as a result. When Debbie (Shelley Hennig) apparently kills herself, her best friend Laine (Olivia Cooke) has a hard time accepting it as a suicide. She is particularly fixated on the fact that she finds a Ouija board like the one they played with as kids among Debbie's possessions, and, as any rational person would do, Laine decides to use the board to contact Debbie for some answers.

One of my biggest problems with any horror film is when people make decisions that I simply don't recognize as real or as the way any person would behave, and that's Laine in a nutshell. From the very beginning, the film is driven by people doing things they need to do in order for the film to work instead of people doing the things they would actually do as characters. People seem awfully matter-of-fact about some pretty outrageous things in the film, and they absorb the existence of the supernatural as if it's no big deal. By the time an older Hispanic woman gives detailed instructions for how to beat the film's primary bad guy, rattling them off with total confidence as if it's common sense, I couldn't take it.

There's a magic trick that happens with any film that works where it “comes to life.” We know that movies aren't real, but when a film works, we can buy into it for the time that it's onscreen, and on special occasions, the film makes us want to buy into it even after the film is over. But when a film never makes that jump, then everything else becomes an exercise in futility, and that's the case here. From the start, this is so mechanical that it never feels like anyone's in anything remotely like danger.

There's a bigger problem, though. By now, the use of ouija boards in horror films is a bad cliche, one of those beats that has been done so many times that there's no chance whatsoever of it surprising us or scaring us. Even more fascinating, Hasbro is an actual partner on the film. So this is their idea of how to take their product, available in toy stores around the world, and build a narrative around it. In that narrative, their product serves as a gateway for an angry spirit to possess people and commit murder, leaving a pretty hefty number of dead teenagers by the end of the movie. If they really wanted to embrace just how weird a notion that is, they should sell the boards in the lobby of the theater while the film is playing, because after watching this, I can't think of anything I'd like to do more!

What a strange misfire. The young cast is stranded by the things they have to do and say, the film's overall sense of slick only serves to disguise how empty the film is, and the toy that the film was designed to advertise is evidently a gateway to evil and madness. Really, really dull evil and madness, sure, but evil and madness nonetheless. I'm going to guess this does some business this weekend as people want a horror film they can go out and see with friends, but it is the very definition of painting by numbers, and it's pretty much as safe a ride as one can have with this type of film.

“Ouija” is in theaters everywhere tomorrow.