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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Ouija Board (2009)

Director: Matt M J Stone
Stars: Nick Smithers, Candice Edmunds, Ross Maxwell, Georgia Goodrick, Lee O'Driscoll and Marysia Kay
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
Obviously low budget from moment one, with sound that could be better, Ouija Board succeeds in transcending its limitations and becoming a film to watch on its own merits, not just because of what it does with a microbudget. Director Matt Stone (not that one, this one is the fourth of eleven with that name at IMDb) is a TV cameraman by day, working for the BBC, but he shot a couple of short films back in 1996 and always wanted to build on that experience by making a full length feature. The Ouija Board website ably explains how hard that turned out to be, even with him filling many roles: not just director but writer, producer, cinematographer and editor too. In the end it took four years for him to get to the point where Ouija Board could be released, but it's unquestionably a success and it bodes well for what he can do with his next film, given that he now has four years of valuable experience on this one under his belt.

It turns out that moment one is the worst one, but perhaps inevitably so. Paul and Kerry are on their way to a remote Scottish cottage for a fun weekend, with three of her friends in the back seat, and we've seen this so many times that our hearts automatically sink on seeing it again. It's hard to catch everything that's going on, because it's outside and the sound quality is far from pristine. It doesn't help that Ross Maxwell has both the most lines and the thickest accent. It's dark and rural, which helps explain how Paul has got lost but means that we have nothing to look at except the characters and the inside of the car. I really can't say that it was promising. Fortunately moment two is when it begins to distinguish itself, because just as Paul starts to nod off, he runs over a young lady who was standing in the middle of the road covered in blood. We don't find out immediately, but she reminds him of a former girlfriend, Claire.

Perhaps because of his day job as a cameraman, Stone avoids the handheld approach for which I'm eternally grateful and he keeps his camera moving. The sound improves once the car stops. Most obviously, as the characters talk about what to do with the corpse and, more importantly, what to do after they wake up in the morning and find it mysteriously gone, we realise this isn't going to just be about the dead girl, it's going to be about each of our leads too: how they react to the event and how it changes them. Some may see that as an indication we'll get more talk than action, as talk is cheap and so the best friend of a microbudget filmmaker. Others may see it as a sign that however clich├ęd the action gets, at least we'll have characters to get our teeth into and that's what we get. Stone may see writing as the least of his talents, the one he has to work hardest at, but I'd say it may be the strongest as it's the writing that elevates the picture.

With only five main actors in the film, he builds them each into well defined characters with story arcs and opportunities to shine. Fortunately they're all played by actors, not just the director's mates, and they do a pretty good job with a lot of dialogue to explain their back stories and how who they are affects their reactions. Each is affected differently and the group dynamic shifts a number of times because of that. While Paul is the grounding for the plot, not just the driver who apparently kills someone on the way to the cottage but also the outsider in the group who may have a skeleton in his closet, James is the catalyst for change within it. He begins as the odd one out, the only one not part of a couple, perhaps because he's also the inappropriate one, the one with a knack of either finishing conversations or prompting entirely new ones that those around him might not want. Yet he grows the most and becomes the most sympathetic.

On the good side, the dialogue is mostly believable, fleshing out the story and drawing us into the picture, but on the bad side the delivery is often stagy, often feeling more like a radio play than a feature film. What's surprising is that it's less because of the actors and how they deliver their lines and more because the performances are insular. While the actors don't always find the life in the dialogue that Stone wrote for them, they all do a pretty good job for the most part, certainly exceeding usual microbudget standards. It's that they often don't interact well, each of them better on their own than as a group. Perhaps part of this is due to the lack of room in which to move the camera around, so forcing many conversations to unfold as monologues with the camera shifting back and forth between speakers. Given that there's a lot of solid and obviously conscious framing of scenes otherwise, I can only assume technical limitations here.

It helps that the cast is varied. Nick Smithers and Ross Maxwell, who play Paul and James, are both experienced actors, with growing lists of credits. Smithers has some really good moments but ultimately can't live up to the challenge of his character. Maxwell grows from being the least sympathetic, the asshole of the bunch, to being the most sympathetic, the most rounded. He gives the best performance on show. Georgia Goodrick has become the most successful, given that she went on to The Human Centipede II, but she's the least consistent here as Kerry. She's wooden more often than any of the others but she also gifts us with some of the most acutely sensitive moments of the film. Candice Edmunds and Lee O'Driscoll round out the main cast as Lucy and Simon, but have the least experience. This is the only credit for each of them at IMDb, though both have worked on film before: she'd done short films and he'd done a mockumentary.

The most prolific member of the cast is actually Marysia Kay, who plays the dead girl so well that sometimes she looks like a special effect and I mean that as a compliment. She gets no lines at all, at least as an actor. The character she plays finds a way to speak through the ouija board of the title, which you just knew had to come into play sooner or later. It turns out to fit into the story a lot better than is usual. So she's tasked with acting only with her body, mostly in scenes where she isn't the focus and yet she makes her presence very known. At one point she falls out of a closet and does it so well that she could have been a mannequin. I'd be very interested to see what she can do in bigger roles and there are plenty to choose from. Surely films with titles like Zombie Women of Satan, The Scar Crow or Karl the Butcher vs Axe aren't going to be Oscar winners, let alone Bikini Blitzkrieg, Part One: Dance Domination, but I'd certainly watch them.

At the end of the day though, these actors showed up, played their parts and went home, while the film began and ended with Matt Stone. Four years of patience and determination, along with who knows how many more of dreaming, are the reasons why this picture exists at all and Stone deserves the lion's share of any praise or condemnation it might attract. I'm sure that in the end, it will become a great learning experience for him to look back to, but it's worthy as microbudget cinema done right. He failed to entirely transcend that budget: the sound begins badly, the trees were in dire need of colour correction and the gore effects felt like the BBFC had pulled out their scissors. Mostly though he succeeded in making a film, not just a microbudget film, with a story that grew and kept us interested throughout, actors who lived up to their characters and neat little moments that show he did his homework well. I'm looking forward to what he does next.

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