Wish Upon (2017)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-07-14 05:12

Written by: Barbara Marshall
Directed by: John R. Leonetti
Starring: Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, and Ki Hong Lee

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

Be careful what you wish for.

As someone who has willingly watched the entire Wishmaster franchise multiple times, I am in no position to scoff at a horror movie involving wishes going horribly awry. Besides that, it’s one of those irresistible hooks that—when placed in the right hands—might yield some kind of riotous trash. And while I’m not saying the folks behind Wish Upon are the exact right hands, I am saying they are at least capable ones, inasmuch as this movie is at least decent junk. If nothing else, it mostly knows you’re here to see its premise exploited for maximum schlock: this is a movie that’s been expressly engineered to churn out teenage drama and dead bodies, and it only manages to moderately disappoint on the latter thanks to a PG-13 rating that kneecaps some of its trash potential.

But still, there’s something compulsively watchable about it, as high school bullshit is often wont to be. Immediately signaling that it’s out to court a rubbernecking sense of intrigue, it opens with a mother tucking away a mysterious package into a garbage can before hanging herself, leaving her young daughter to find dear old mom’s limp body dangling from a noose. We discover that this ordeal has become a recurring nightmare for Clare (Joey King), a “misfit” (read: she does art and shit) high school student who often finds herself bullied by more popular girls. She pines over the popular guy, while remaining oblivious that the “nerdier” dude in class has an obvious crush on her. Luckily, her lot in life is set to improve when her father (Ryan Phillipe) scavenges through an old estate and stumbles upon a mysterious box bearing Chinese symbols. Because Clare is conveniently enrolled in Chinese class, she at least deciphers that it’s a box capable of granting seven wishes. What she doesn’t know is that they come with a price. Spoiler: it’s a “blood price.”

And in usual wish-gone-wrong parlance, that usually equates to those wishes being twisted into grim, ironic contortions. You know, the old Monkey’s Paw shit. Here, though, that really only happens once (when she wishes for a guy to fall madly in love with her, it’s granted literally), as the “twist” here involves someone close to Clare dying in horrific fashion, starting with her beloved dog (pet lovers, beware). As each wish comes true, someone has to bite it, resulting in an odd mix of triumph and tragedy that reveals that Clare is…well, Clare is a bit of a little shit. When her wealthy, eccentric (and apparently estranged uncle, given how cagey Clare’s dad is about him for no explicit reason) uncle dies, she immediately wishes to be granted his estate in the will, and even does a little happy dance and everything when it comes true. Not the best way to endear a protagonist to the audience, in my opinion.

Wish Upon proceeds in such tone deaf fashion for most of its runtime, so you’ll be treated to carefree montages of Clare and her friends (Shannon Purser and Sydney Park) living up their newfound popularity and wealth right after watching someone die gruesomely (well, by PG-13 standards). At a certain point, it kind of becomes a hoot watching these girls (but especially Clare) carry on, oblivious to the horrors that are unfolding because of these wishes. (It goes without saying that Clare is not the swiftest protagonist in horror history.) One minute, Wish Upon feels like Teen Witch or The Craft; the next, it’s delivering sequences straight out of a Final Destination knock-off, right down to borrowing some of that franchise’s familiar gags involving bathtubs and garbage disposals.

It also shares that franchise’s devious sense of the macabre. While it thankfully spares us the gory details of the dog’s death, the rest of the sequences grow increasingly ludicrous, essentially teasing the audience about how the script will rid itself of a character. Will it be that garbage disposal or that pot dangerously simmering to a boil in the background? Sometimes, there’s even a question of who will eat it: in one of the film’s standout scenes, Clare (who should definitely know better) makes a wish, setting up a devilish little stretch where two characters are put into peril, only to continuously escape until the inevitable comes crashing down. Forget Final Destination: I was mostly reminded of that running gag in Hot Tub Time Machine where Crispin Glover is destined to lose an arm but keeps escaping dangerous situations with it still intact.

By the time this scene rolls around, there’s no doubt that Wish Upon exists to appeal to your desire to watch people die—it’s as shameless as just about any slasher movie, even if it is wrapped up in the pretense of a convoluted story involving something resembling characters. Make no mistake: just about everyone is disposable as hell, including Clare, who very much sucks as a person. Even as she slowly (and I mean s-l-o-w-l-y) figures out what’s going on, she has doubts about what she should do—there’s a brief insinuation that this box has some kind of preternatural hold over its owners, but it’s also just as easy to believe that Clare is a bad person, no matter how much the script attempts to garner sympathy for her.

That’s one of the…well, I suppose you’d call them “problems” with Wish Upon, but I prefer to look at it as providing a glimpse into some alternate dimension where much of mankind acts nothing like actual human beings. Aside from suffering from trauma stemming from her mom’s suicide, there’s little attempt to depict her as remotely likeable. Sure, the mean girls at school toss garbage and shade at her, but it’s not like she ever takes the high road. Hell, she’s not even that friendly towards her own dad, as an early scene features her berating him for scavenging through the dumpster at her school (that, apparently, is all this dude does all day: dig through trash to find junk that clutters up around the house. I guess he also plays saxophone, too, but it seems to be recreational.) I guess we’re supposed to think she’s better than her tormentors because she paints stuff and dresses somewhat frumpishly.

Her two friends (but especially Park’s character) don’t inspire much sympathy either since they feel like someone’s wild guess at what teenagers today act and talk like. Wish Upon features some of the silliest teen dialogue this side of My Soul to Take, which I think should qualify as some kind of weird compliment at this point (if nothing else, all the weird character stuff in that movie is totally indelible—California Condor for life). Depending on your persuasion, you’ll either be disappointed or relieved to hear that Barbara Marshall’s script never quite reaches those heights (or lows), though I am quite sure I never expected to hear “a big bowl of bitch sauce” hurled as an insult. If you ever winced at some of the hip dialogue being tossed around in Kevin Williamson’s 90s scripts, prepare to be apoplectic at some of the conversations here.

For me, the dialogue is nothing if not lively: for all the world, Wish Upon looks like it should be a generic, watered-down PG-13 riff on a clichéd theme, but it boasts just enough wry self-awareness to leave an impression. There’s a value to knowing what your audience craves and perhaps even more value in delivering it economically: at 89 minutes, Wish Upon appropriately moves with the breathless sense of a teenager dreaming up various plot points and diversions, and it somehow manages to stuff in the box’s requisite, mysterious backstory and a brief subplot involving a deranged stalker. I howled all the way through it.

Yes, it also (appropriately) feels like a teenager’s identity crisis—this movie can’t figure out if it wants to be The Craft or Final Destination (or maybe even The Butterfly Effect?), but I’m going to be real: I don’t care. Nor am I all that worried that everyone kind of sucks. The most important thing is that Wish Upon has the decency to off several of them and have fun in the process. Just about the only real concern is that PG-13 rating since some wildly gory payoffs would put it over the top and allow it to really indulge the concept's splattery potential. It’s especially frustrating since it’s obvious they were aiming for an R-rating, only to see the money shots hacked out during the editing process. Like, it was so obvious that I wasn’t the least bit surprised to just read an article where director John Leonetti insists the inevitable unrated home video release will be gorier.

Look, I know that this should especially sink Wish Upon, but it somehow survives. Defying all logic (and, perhaps, taste), this movie features so many wrong parts that cohere into a weirdly entertaining whole. This shit happens sometimes, and if you think none of this makes any sense, I must redirect you to this review’s opening sentence as my defense.

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