OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL & DOCTOR STRANGE – Oh, the Connections You’ll Make

A recent double feature of Ouija: Origin of Evil and Doctor Strange made me realize that Blumhouse Productions and Marvel Studios – the respective production companies/studios responsible for these motion pictures – have almost become two sides of the same predictable coin. Simply put: Blumhouse is to horror movies what Marvel is to superhero movies in that they’ve both made a literal art of guaranteeing positive box office results for their increasingly trademark genre fare.[1]   

I say ‘literal art’ because their movies – their art – all conform to the same creative standards established by the companies’ previous popular products, restricting the diversity of their ‘art’ in the name of financial profitability. Blumhouse and Marvel’s near-constant success has allowed them to seduce legitimate artists to work on their projects, all of whom are talented enough to make a distinguishable mark through their own stylistic flourishes. Unfortunately, those flourishes are superficial at best, and they can’t overcome the unshakably pervasive feeling that the basic story structures that provide the very framework to most these movies are almost all – at their cores – identical. The quasi-corporate shackles imposed on the creation of these movies definitely lessens their box office risk by promising risk-averse audiences that they basically know in advance how much they’ll enjoy what they’re paying to see, but in doing so their movies become more like products (and less like actual art) created by reliable brands (as opposed to artists). In other words, the brand-imposed limitations that make them such great financial successes simultaneously prevent them from achieving artistic greatness, as is the case with both Ouija: Origin of Evil and Doctor Strange.

The former once again follows the Blumhouse model of telling a story set in a bygone era, in this case the 1960s. One of the smarter through-lines in Ouija, in fact, is the implication that people back in the day were more inclined to believe in supernatural presences as a way of coping with the loneliness often induced by the death of a close loved one; nowadays, the connective power of modern technology can lessen those fear-inducing feelings of isolation. With that in mind, perhaps contemporary audiences prefer their horror wrapped in a period package because they recognize the terror in the idea of being alone in the world without the constant connections now always offered by high-speed communication. 

Like in their other period flicks, the production design of Ouija is gloriously – and endearingly –steeped in its age, almost as if Blumhouse wanted to make sure that when their audiences weren’t being scared, at least they’d be able to enjoy the period nostalgia dripping from every corner. Director Mike Flanagan even finds subtle, strictly stylish ways to pay homage to horror films of the 60s, from crossfading between scenes to fittingly-placed cue marks.[2] These expert production design elements successfully establish their intended exceedingly welcoming yet simultaneously unsettling atmosphere, the right type of mood to lure in audiences that are almost always impressively on display in Blumhouse projects. 

Unfortunately, instead of changing the typical contents of the Blumhouse story structure to match the enjoyably throwback vibe of the movie, Ouija is jam packed with the same old horror movie tropes that were prevalent way before Blumhouse beat them into the ground: a possessed child, a benevolent priest, a single mother desperately trying to protect her children, a family living in a house once used for treacherous acts that still haunt the space, dead spirits attacking present occupiers of a house built atop their forgotten graveyard home, etc. etc. etc. Many of these are presented in genuinely horrifying, if not derivative visuals – another Blumhouse signature – but instead of employing them to scare the audience in new ways, Flanagan unimaginatively relies on the same old, increasingly tired jump scare tactics. To Flanagan’s credit, these aren’t just usual “all bark and no bite” jump scares; their initial barks do indeed lead to actual bites by the end. Instead of obnoxiously, misleadingly flirting around the horror by merely teasing the terrifying elements without ever showing them – a sadly consistent practice in horror today – Flanagan ultimately does throw a lot of shit that hits the audience’s ‘fans,’ which allows him to show off his aforementioned visual flare. Yet the persistent familiarity of these proceedings prevents many of the scenes from being as scary as they should be.

The bigger problem, though, resides in the far too simple and obvious dramatic intent that fuels most Blumhouse fare. Since movies – and most art that seems to recycle its core components – should be evaluated less on ‘WHAT they’re about’ and more on ‘HOW they handle what they’re about,’ common tropes do not inevitably mean doom to the quality of the movies that utilize them. There’s only so many general ways to scare people, so rehashing on a certain level is to be expected. Luckily, people come in all shapes and sizes, thus rehashed scares can adopt a fresh air if they feature new types of characters – out of the infinite possibility of ones available to all thoughtful writers – thrust into familiarly scary situations. Truly great horror filmmakers – many of whose work Ouija homages – understood and understand that real fear comes from an intimate connection with the characters; if the audience feels like they understand a character – especially a character that isn’t just a carbon copy of past superior models – they’ll be more capable of occupying their headspace, inherently increasing the fear shared between that character and the audience. 

And this is where Ouija – and most Blumhouse movies – almost always come up short: they tend to treat character and narrative development as secondary in importance to lurching their way – sometimes clumsily – from one set piece only intended to scare to the next.[3] A pretty big indicator that crafting a strong story isn’t really a Blumhouse priority: even though Ouija: Origin of Evil is technically ‘a prequel of a sequel’ to 2014’s simpler-titled Ouija, their stories have suspiciously little connection besides both involving Ouija boards. Sequels that prioritize storytelling tend build off all of the (hopefully) hard character work put into the first outing, but since Blumhouse treats the functions of their stories and characters as nothing more than being easy vehicles leading from scare to scare, such story and character building isn’t on display in Ouija: Origin of Evil.

Even after all this time, all these movies, and all that money, Blumhouse still hasn’t updated their dramatic structural model to ensure the maximum amount of fear is generated from the character and narrative development feeding into that fear. Too many scenes feel like they’re approached as if their only purpose is to put forth irritatingly necessary exposition required to logically get to the next scare, which is probably why that logic often feels questionably valid at best. Expert horror filmmakers understand that these types of developmental, ‘more boring than scary’ scenes – if handled with a sufficient amount of care – can actually contribute to the overall terrifying effect of a movie more than Ouija: Origin of Evil‘s approach of simply filming the conventionally horrifying scenes utilizing superficially scary tactics. These movies can still scare if directed with as much finesse as they are in Ouija and most other Blumhouse movies, but without engaging the mind and/or heart, they’re ultimately interchangeable and thus forgettable.

So to recap: Ouija’s story is engaging enough but not that engaging; the audience gets to know enough about the characters but not that much; the movie touches upon enough intriguing ideas but not that many; and there are obviously enough scary scenes but they’re not that scary. As such, expectedly, the movie ends up being good enough to see for horror buffs, but it’s still not that good. Even so, Blumhouse seems fine only appealing again and again to their same base horror-loving demographic, who in turn seem equally fine spending their money again and again on ‘good enough’ derivations of the same basic movie. Does this consumer match made in commercial heaven entirely justify Blumhouse’s apparent tendency to strive for nothing more than good enough, or should they put their vast amounts of money and experience towards improving the quality of their movies so that Blumhouse finally becomes synonymous with great instead of just good enough? It would be a risk, but one that may result in the sort of crossover appeal that often leads to breakaway box office hits.

Until that day comes, the greatest aspect of their movies will continue to have nothing to do with horror: they often provide some of the best character actors and especially actresses working – but who don’t do so often enough – today with the rare opportunity to play a leading role. Though these performers are mostly hired because they don’t command a high salary and thus fit in Blumhouse’s customarily and mandatorily (in regards to their commercial viability) low budgets, these performers nevertheless still elevate the sometimes shoddy material they’re given, a far cry from back in the day when amateur performances in horror movies often made the material come across as more pedestrian than it actually was. In a landscape where audiences see too many of the same faces every time they go to the movies, Blumhouse’s most vital contribution to Hollywood – unless they change their artistic ways – will continue to be their pragmatic guarantee that oft-forgotten talents enjoy some rare time in the spotlight, a virtue that should not be understated.

Marvel’s movies share this casting virtue, but instead of giving character actors and actresses a chance to shine in lead roles – opting instead to place them in still-juicy supporting parts – this Disney-owned corporation has the financial keys to hire the absolute best performers in the world to lead their seemingly never-ending series of franchises. Doctor Strange most excels in this very regard: Benedict Cumberbatch brings grounded gravity to the title character, and he’s surrounded by a bevy of consummate professionals giving their all…but Tilda Swinton outright steals out from under them every scene she’s in, and probably some she’s not in too. Whereas Cumberbatch seemed to be doing his best ‘Hugh Laurie in House’ impression,[4] Swinton is reminiscent of no one besides, well, herself. She’s a niche actress in so many senses of that term; more than just usually starring in niche films, her entire state of being feels niche. She’s unlike any other performer, and as such, she brings dimensions to her characters that nobody else can, thereby making an indelible mark on them that’s uniquely her own. Swinton is that much of a breath force of fresh air in Doctor Strange, and a much needed one at that. 

Defenders of the movie’s greatness – including its supposed originality – harp on the nifty visual aesthetic, but director Scott Derrickson brings the same level of stylish yet still merely superficial and derivative flourishes to Doctor Strange as Flanagan does to Ouija: Origin of Evil.[5] Derrickson must have been an obvious choice for Marvel due to his previous experience successfully working with another production company that also asks their directors to conform to the dictates of their brand; that’s right, Derrickson directed Sinister for Blumhouse, which was popular enough to sequelize. It’s almost as if Blumhouse allowed him to pass a test in Marvel’s eyes that proved his ability to make his movies pretty enough and entertaining enough to obscure their safe lack of risky novel substance underneath.

Like with Blumhouse’s fare, a majority of Marvel’s scripts conform to the same basic story and character beats (almost) every. single. time. that no amount of directorial style can mask. All of their movies seemingly chronicle troubled people who find purpose in the realization that their newfound superpowers can affect real change, both in the world and in themselves. No matter the strength of that model structure, repackaging and recycling it again and again and again will lead to diminishing returns.

One of the reasons this year’s Captain America: Civil War proved to be one of Marvel’s better offerings was because the movie actually explored a substantive idea as opposed to simply introducing/continuing a character’s action-packed life. Instead of just good fighting evil, the characters actually stood for subjective ideals, and thus their subsequent fights had real stakes rooted in their oppositional answers to the movie’s central question: in a hypothetical world where superheroes exist, should they be accountable to the government so they have some oversight, or would superheroes be more capable of helping the world by avoiding the sort of bureaucratic diplomacy that’s a staple of most governments? The subtext of this ‘Civil War’ connects to a debate that has been raging basically since the dawn of human society: how much power should governments entrust to their citizens? Regardless of how well you thought the movie dealt with that subtext, the very existence of subtext in a Marvel movie ensured that Civil War had more depth than their other cinematic ventures.

Case in point: Doctor Strange contains no such subtext, but rather simply depicts a character whose major dilemma ONCE AGAIN revolves around the question of whether or not he’s going to use his newfound power for the good of all or for the good of one, i.e. himself.[6] There’s only so many times that story structure works before it loses its luster. Don’t get me wrong, the action scenes will always have luster to their desired audiences…but at a certain point the easy entertainment they provide will be trumped by Marvel’s increasingly tired tendency to approach their properties by basically playing creative Mad Libs with their scripts, inserting different character types, narrative scenes, and action set pieces into the same structural fill in the blanks. For an audience to truly emotionally connect to a character, that character’s particular individual identity needs to dictate how their story is told. By not creating an organic and original structure each time, every subsequent character Marvel introduces gradually feels more artificially hallow, and thus less enjoyable.

For instance, did anyone reeeeeeally care about Doctor Strange as a character while they were watching? They definitely liked him because Cumberbatch is likable, but that’s very different from actually caring about his fate. If all of the stakes are exclusively rooted in the simple question of whether or not a main character will survive, the audience cannot emotionally engage with that question because they know Marvel would never spend so much money to introduce a character just to promptly kill him off. 

In a way, Marvel – like Blumhouse – has almost become an artistic slave to its own commercial success. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” becomes understandably extremely hard to refute in the face of literally billions of reasons (worldwide) not to. And their movies make money for a reason: though their lack of emotional pulls transform too many scenes into nothing more than pretty pictures merely flickering before the audience’s eyes, their movies at this point remain never less than enjoyable to watch because they’re exceedingly competently – if not originally – produced on every level.[7]

Most impressively, unlike Blumhouse and their too obvious race to the next scare, Marvel pays enough attention to the non-action scenes to (almost) entirely mask the impression that the only function they serve is to set up the next moneymaking fight scene. Unfortunately, their screenplays suffer from a different plague, one that riddles Doctor Strange: the characters sound the same – everyone speaks in pithy dialogue that loses a lot of its pithiness from the writers clearly believing they’re being pithy as hell. This monotony adds a level of artificiality to the characters that also makes it hard to connect to them on an emotional level. 

Since many writers succumb to this easy trap, I should probably be a little more forgiving of this trait in Doctor Strange…but I just can’t look past it because this crippling monotony epitomizes most Marvel movies to me.  As should be evident by now, monotony is basically the name of the game for Marvel’s entire brand, and Blumhouse’s for that matter. Besides the aforementioned superficial, insignificant differences, Marvel movies always feel like Marvel movies and Blumhouse movies always feel like Blumhouse movies. This trend isn’t a deal breaker in itself: movies from previous brand-esque lucrative studios have come with similar stamps of guaranteed quality, but the best of them – like Pixar – afforded their artists a sufficient level of creative freedom. Blumhouse and Marvel’s more restrictive fare pale in comparison because they never reflect the particular artistic identities of any of the collaborating artists. These movies feel less like creations of individual people and more like they’re churned out by factories, printing money in the process. 

And as long as that money keeps being printed, Blumhouse and Marvel are not going to change their ways. For their bubbles to burst, audiences will have to become fatigued with their brands, which basically means getting tired of paying to see exactly what they’ve for years happily paid for. 

Oh, and I’m by no means calling for a boycott of their flicks. Putting my money where my mouth is – i.e. not in the coffers of Marvel and Blumhouse – would definitely allow me to be the change I wish to see in the world, which has long been a noble yet naively difficult way of making a difference. But as I hope I’ve made clear despite my ranting, I do actually enjoy these movies, albeit to varying degrees and generally less and less over time. In a weird way, they’re almost too consistently good to live without yet too consistently good – in that they’re always good in the same consistent way – to live with, especially for people who prefer to be surprised by what they see. Perhaps there will come a day when I stop trekking my way to a theatre for their latest offering, avoiding the inevitable result of walking out grumbling about all of the easy fixes Blumhouse and Marvel could make to really transform their entries into worthwhile, timeless genre fare. 

But that day is not today. For now, the only recourse in sight is probably an uber-visionary – and persuasive – director somehow talking his way into having free reign over one of their projects. If such a daring movie becomes a smash hit because of its daring nature, that could be a literal game changer…

But for now, we’re ‘happily’ stuck watching the same game unfold ad nauseam.

Lucky us?

FOOTNOTES

[1] With Marvel’s results obviously being on a much larger scale, but their offerings also have remarkably bigger budgets; reasonable budgets are key to Blumhouse’s success.

[2] For those unfamiliar with this term, it describes the ‘cigarette burn’-esque dots that used to appear in the top right corner of screens twice every 20 minutes at the end of each reel back when movies were projected on film. Since Ouija is being projected digitally, these cue marks/cigarette burns/change marks (another term for them) were clearly conscious aesthetic decisions.

[3] The best way for a movie NOT to be scary is if the creators fail to mask the fact that their only intention is to scare…transparency can be a bitch sometimes.

[4] Perhaps these two Brits used the same American accent coach?

[5] With that being said, if Hugh Laurie could sue Cumberbatch for his performance, then Chris Nolan should be able to file a class action lawsuit against the entire movie for basically ripping off the visual effects from Inception.

[6] Spoiler alert: I bet you can guess which he chooses.

[7] Which is probably why critics seem to give Marvel’s movies – AND Blumhouse’s – giant passes. Since opinions are like assholes (because everyone has one), critics often try to (or at least they should) look past their own subjective feelings in the name of evaluating a movie on its own terms. Since Marvel and Blumhouse constantly achieve their rote intentions, criticizing them can almost feel wrong.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s