Wish Upon (2017) Directed by John R. Leonetti. Starring Joey King, Ryan Phillippe and Ki Hong Lee. A teenage girl discovers an antique Chinese music box that grants 7 wishes, each of which comes with a deadly price in this simplistic retelling of W.W. Jacob’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw.”
In the opening scene of “Wish Upon,” suburban Ohio mother Johanna places a conspicuous wrapped package in the trash as her young daughter Clare takes a bike ride with the family puppy, Max. Johanna tells Clare to stay close to the house, then goes up to the attic and kills herself. Talk about bad parenting.
Clare discovers the body, scarring her emotionally. Years later, Max is an old pooch and Clare an awkward high school misfit portrayed by The Conjuring’s Joey King. Her once beautiful home has fallen into disrepair and is cluttered with odds and ends from the junk salvaging business her father Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe) runs. Shallow bully Darcey labels Clare ‘Garbage Girl’ after her pops is seen around town diving into dumpsters. June (Shannon Purser aka Barb from “Stranger Things”) and Meredith (The Walking Dead’s Sydney Park) are Clare’s sympathetic pals, and the closest thing we get to characterization from either is that Meredith loves playing a Pokemon Go-style horror game on her phone. That’s not a knock against either actress. They can only do so much with what the anemic script provides.
During one morning excursion at a creepy estate with demonic statues on its iron gates, Jonathan finds an ancient music box dating back to 1900s China. He gives it to his daughter, who has the Chinese words covering the box translated. The antique offers 7 wishes and demands a mysterious price for each, but there’s a simple escape hatch: if you lose, throw away or sell the device, all your wishes fade away and you go back to the life you had before.
After Darcey destroys Clare’s handmade banner for the annual Scavenger Hunt and gets into a brawl with her in the cafeteria, our heroine makes her first wish: That mean old Darcey would rot, which comes in the form of a necrotizing flesh disease and results in the death of beloved dog Max. His life was the price to be paid. Clare then wishes that her man crush, blank eyed hunk Mitchell, would fall madly in love with her. The love of this generic jock costs her wealthy Uncle Augustus his life.
She also asks for mo’ money and becomes the sole beneficiary of her newly dead uncle’s estate, which means that she and her dad move into an ultramodern mansion and drive fancy cars. There’s an extended shopping spree scene where wealthy Clare treats her two friends to crazy expensive swag.
Clare isn’t exactly the brightest bulb, as evidenced by her continued confusion when she’s 5 wishes deep and folks around her are dropping like flies.
She eventually becomes addicted to the box and determined to beat the thing at its own game, even when one of her wishes coming true results in a psychotic stalker. She really should’ve watched her wording on that wish. It takes her nearly the entire running time to realize that her mother’s grim fate is connected to the box, and she makes this discovery by simply moving a painting in a stack of Johanna’s artwork that has been sitting there in her home her entire life.
Clare has desperately missed her late mom for years, but never took the time to look through her artwork?
While en route last week to see a movie about talking monkeys with guns, a film that blasts this one out of the theatre with its emotional depth and beating heart, I spotted the poster for “Wish Upon.” From The Director Of “Annabelle,” the one sheet screamed in bold type. Might not want to advertise that, I thought, as it’s a bit of a red flag for horror fans. “Annabelle” was a poorly executed misfire packed with insubstantial jump scares and unbelievable situations.
Chucky remains comfortably seated on the throne of Killer Doll movies.
“Wish Upon” plays out as a scareless combination of the “Wishmaster” and “Final Destination” franchises, though both of those feature an ironic sense of humor with their deaths and much more elaborate accident set ups.
Speaking of accidents, there’s a particularly embarrassing moment involving a flying CGI tire attacking Jonathan, and another in which a man teetering on an unsteady ladder attempts to prune a tree with a chainsaw while carelessly swinging the roaring tool around. I’m all for a deadly accident, especially one carefully set up in a series of mildly plausible events taking place in just the right way, but these are just too silly. What could’ve really set “Wish Upon” apart is to give us what the “Final Destination” films don’t: an actual monster.
If your friends and loved ones are being torn to pieces by a tangible demon instead of getting their lengthy ponytails caught in the garbage disposal at a bad moment, the flick might’ve seemed less derivative.
In terms of character development, “Wish Upon” is a little odd. According to Hollywood, high schools are full of irredeemably evil Rich Stuck Up Bitches, Geeks With Hearts Of Gold, Dangerously Sexy Outsider Tough Guys, etc. Because Clare is originally poorer than her tormentors and artistically talented, she is targeted by Darcey and her selfie obsessed cronies. But early on, before all the wishes, Clare mocks Darcey openly in the cafeteria and then beats the shit out of the popular girl.
Doesn’t she know that Sensitive Art Chicks get knocked around and made fun of until they blow the school away with their mad art skills at the big Talent Show? They certainly do NOT kick their bully’s ass early on in the First Act!
Also, Clare is selfish throughout, and not just when she finds out about the deadly price others are paying for her awesome life and keeps doing it. And her crush on Mitchell, the most supremely boring Popular Bro ever created, seems to come out of nowhere. When Clare wishes for his love, I wondered who she was talking about.
After the wish spell is cast on him, he dumps his interchangeable android of a Popular Girlfriend and invites Clare out to the big Scavenger Hunt. There, they share this tender moment in each other’s embrace:
Her: “What are you thinking about?”
Him: “Just trying to think of something dope to say before I kiss you. This isn’t it.”
He doesn’t get any cleverer.
Horror aimed at teens has often been mocked, with “Unfriended” and “The Gallows” held up as examples of the toothlessness of teeny bopper horror. I found elements to appreciate in both of those two films, even if the whole body of the work wasn’t successful. Consider that two popular films directed at teenagers in the late 1990s, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Scream,” were both rated R and featured bloody graphic violence.
Times have changed.
Opening up a film to younger audiences these days means more tickets sold and the dulling of the violence and sexuality aspects that typify the genre. But PG-13 doesn’t mean that it can’t be entertaining and effective, as Gore Verbinski’s fine remake of “The Ring” and David Sandberg’s decent “Lights Out” both carry that rating. It’s a lot easier pulling off a creepy supernatural film than a visceral gory one with a kid friendly rating, and somehow “Wish Upon” fails to do either.
There’s one unbreakable rule all horror films featuring a monster should abide by: show the monster.
Don’t give me reams of exposition about a Chinese demon called a Yaoguai and then not show the damn thing. I’m sitting there waiting for the monster form of The Golden Child’s Sardo Numspa to storm down the high school corridors and bite Clare’s head off, but nothing demonic occurs. I figured the Yaoguai would pop out as Wish Upon’s big final scare sequence. No dice. I’ve heard the ending praised as the high point or mocked as being laughable.
Horror may be the only genre where a nasty, twisty climax can actually elevate the mediocre film it concludes. If audiences walk out of a horror flick with a smile on their faces from one brilliantly conceived final scare, they’re willing to forgive the low points. So, does “Wish Upon” pull off a kickass ending that’ll send popcorn flying as teenagers shriek in fright?