Wish Upon is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
When I say that Wish Upon—a new horror film that is about a teen-ager, and aimed at teen-agers—feels like it was written by teenagers, I would not want you to mistake my meaning. I do not mean it “has an authentic voice.” I do not mean that it “feels real.” I do not mean that the filmmakers “know their subject.”
I mean that it is dumb: shallow, obvious, and emotionally immature. I mean that it is intended for the stupid teenagers, and that it is unlikely to make them any smarter.
Directed by John R. Leonetti (Annabelle), and written by Barbara Marshall (a former staff writer on the equally dumb and deservedly short-lived Terra Nova TV show), Wish Upon is the story of Clare (Joey King), a teen-age girl whose junkman father (Ryan Phillipe) brings her a mysterious Chinese “wish box.” (He found it in the dumpster outside an abandoned house with laughably demonic statuary.) Clare—who is conveniently taking Chinese in school—can read just enough of the characters on the box to recognize the words “seven wishes,” but not enough to read the warning “blood debt.” Soon, she is making unimaginative wishes to improve her social status (riches! popularity! the love of the insipidly cute boy!), and people around her begin dying off in equally unimaginative “accidents” (a slip in the bathtub! a garbage-disposal mishap! a wayward chainsaw!).
King (featured on the latest season of Fargo) is actually a very likable presence, and deserves a better starring vehicle than this one. In fact, she is probably miscast here: she makes Clare seem like far too level-headed and decent a young woman to ignore all the horror-movie warning signs (The dog won’t go near the box!), let alone to make all the stupid and selfish decisions she makes here. Even after Clare figures out that her wishes are killing her loved ones, she continues making them: the film wants to play this as a metaphor for the desperation of high-schoolers to be accepted—and later as a weird and unconvincing metaphor for addiction—but Clare doesn’t come across as bullied enough, outcast enough, or damaged enough to make her seem like anything but a shallow and braindead twit. (Andrew Fleming’s 1996 film The Craft—an obvious influence—was not a masterpiece, but it had more believably anti-social teenagers. Give that film’s Fairuza Balk a scary Chinese wish box, and I might actually be scared.)
But Wish Upon has nothing to say about teenagers. (From the dialogue, it’s not entirely clear whether anyone involved has ever met one.) It’s just an excuse to stage a few gruesome—if determinedly PG-13—deaths, a la Final Destination. The problem is, Final Destination was already a derivative, bargain-basement franchise, and the “shocks” in Wish Upon don’t even have the Rube-Goldberg cleverness that was all the Destination movies had going for them. I’m actually not even sure it’s accurate to call Wish Upon a “horror movie” at all, as it offers no real scares and virtually nothing in the way of suspense. The premise might have worked better as a dark comedy, but there are sadly no (intentional) laughs to be found either.
Look, teenagers deserve crappy horror movies: God knows, the horror movies of my own youth—like the original Friday the 13th franchise—were pretty indisputably awful. But at least we could count on ridiculous gore and gratuitous nudity. I confess I don’t really understand these watered-down, family-style, PG-13-rated “horror movies,”which strip the genre of all its transgressive charm and bite, and end up feeling like mindlessly obvious morality plays with a few giggling jump-scares. Are there kids who really enjoy this kind of thing? When they stumble upon the obviously evil Chinese boxes, maybe they should wish for a better movie.