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flicks-main-maxresdefaultFear in the family

**½

Until it goes haywire in the third act, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a surprisingly solid Halloween shocker, with quality performances and a storyline that elevate it several notches above average.
Positioned as a prequel to the 2014 hit, this film’s story takes place in the mid-’60s, where recently-widowed Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) makes ends meet by holding seances and telling fortunes – with some surreptitious assistance from daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson).
The Ouija Board game has become all the rage, and Alice buys one to use in the routine. Anyone who’s ever seen a Ouija Board in a movie knows this will prove a fateful decision. Although Hasbro, which manufactures the game, is among the film’s production partners, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for its use given the inevitable cinematic consequences.
Director/editor Mike Flanagan, who penned the screenplay with Jeff Howard, does a nice job keeping the spooky atmosphere simmering, providing some well-time jolts and knowing when to steer clear of the explicit – thereby engaging the audience’s imagination.
Even better, the characters are unexpectedly well-developed, especially for a horror film. They’re not just cardboard stereotypes, and Basso, Reaser and Wilson prove quite adept at incorporating a dramatic texture to their scenes. One genuinely feels concern for their characters. Henry Thomas, all grown up from E.T. (1982), also does good work as neighborhood priest Father Tom, whose worries about the Ouija Board prove well-founded.
Eventually, however, all hell breaks loose – and so does Origin of Evil’s narrative. The shocks get a little schlocky, to say nothing of predictable, and some (but not all) of the good will generated in the earlier stages is squandered. Still, it was nice while it lasted.

Coming home

***

UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Zach Clark follows up his award-winning 2013 comedy White Reindeer with Little Sister, a quirky and assured – and assuredly quirky – comedy whose dramatic elements tend to sneak up on you.
Set in 2008 on the eve of Barack Obama’s election as President, the film stars Addison Timlin as Colleen, who on the eve of taking her vows as a nun opts to visit her family in Asheville. This is her first time back since older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) returned from Iraq, severely burned in combat.
Much as Colleen tends the homeless and infirm at her Catholic mission in Brooklyn, her own family could use a little tending, too. Jacob is a self-pitying recluse, and their parents (Ally Sheedy and UNCSA graduate Peter Hedges) drown their sorrows and neuroses in drugs. As a free-spirited Goth teenager, Colleen was the family’s proverbial black sheep. Now, having fled the nest to join a convent – thereby leaving one family and joining another – she is again an outcast of sorts.
Dysfunctional-family comedies are a genre unto itself, but Little Sister’s low-key humor is carefully balanced with a heartfelt insight. For all the tension in Colleen’s family, there’s unmistakable love there. The characters simply aren’t quite sure how to express it, try as they might.
The cast, headed by Timlin in a star-making turn, delivers throughout. Despite the grotesque (but surely accurate) burn makeup, Jacob’s inner personality – as wounded as his physical demeanor – is believably conveyed by Poulson. Sheedy and Hedges convince as a couple whose attempts at maintaining a “normal” facade is crumbling beneath them. Barbara Crampton, fondly remembered for her ’80s “scream queen” turns (Re-Animator, From Beyond, etc.), enjoys a good supporting role as Colleen’s Reverend Mother, who encourages Colleen to settle family accounts but grows increasingly agitated because she borrowed her car to do it, and Molly Plunk is simply adorable as Colleen’s girlhood friend Emily, who in the intervening years has become politically activated. If there’s a cause, she’s on it.

– Little Sister opens Friday

Possession at the reception

***

In Marcin Wrona’s contemporary chiller Demon, the demon in question is actually the “dybbuk,” an anguished – although not necessarily evil — spirit depicted in Jewish lore.
Set in modern-day Poland, the story focuses on Piotr (well-played by Itay Tiran), a young man engaged to be married to Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), whose father Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski, who steals the film) has gifted them with the family’s rundown country manor. It’s while doing some repairs that Piotr comes unearths human bones and, unbeknownst to him – yet – unleashed the spirit of a girl called Hana (Maria Debska), who vanished years before.
No sooner have Piotr and Zaneta exchanged vows than a torrential downpour commences – a harbinger of what’s to come. At the wedding reception, which is being held at the manor, Piotr begins exhibiting strange behavior and having convulsions, and it’s not the vodka. Nor is it food poisoning, which is one of Zygmunt’s more outlandish excuses for Piotr’s condition.
The local doctor (Adam Woronowicz), a closet boozer, mistakenly diagnoses Piotr with epilepsy – then later retracts it. But a retired teacher (Wlodzimierz Press), whose doddering wedding toast saw him unceremoniously yanked from the stage, knows the legend of the dybbuk, and Zaneta soon comes to believe that only his knowledge can save Piotr.
Zygmunt, however, is more concerned with saving the reception. He denies any knowledge of human bones buried on his property – although there are indications he’s always known – and he desperately attempts to put on a brave face and keep his guests duly intoxicated and unaware of Pitor’s disintegrating condition, thereby sparing his family any shame. His ultimate solution proves beyond any doubt that true evil is perpetrated by the living, not the dead.
Demon is being promoted as a horror film – and its accolades include winning Best Horror Feature at the 2015 Fantastic Fest – but it’s as much a dissection of a wedding reception gone bad. There’s more black comedy to the proceedings than expected, and amid the cynical drollery Wrona and co-writer Pawel Maslona make some cutting observations about human nature.
Sadly, Demon marks the final work of Wrona, who hanged himself during the film’s promotional tour. If Demon is to be his legacy, it’s a worthy one – but his loss deprives audiences of what likely would have been a significant, even important, career. He was only 42.
(In English, Polish and Yiddish with English subtitles)

 Demon opens Friday

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92 (92.3 FM). Copyright 2016, Mark Burger

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