There’s a tendency in modern horror films today to make the entire film centered around a central object, or symbol. The biggest and most illustrious horror figures are typically known for an iconic look or central object. Jason has his hockey mask, while Freddy Krueger has his legendary metal claw. Even movies that aren’t particularly good have stood the test of time due to an iconic thing, like the Amityville house from the “Amityville Horror” films, or even the doll from “Annabelle” has become iconic in its own, sloppy right. But now, horror films are trying to really cash in on this whole “simple recognition” thing by negating the central evil or malice in their films down to a single object that is touted constantly in marketing, none more clear than in the marketing for “Wish Upon” (ironically from the director of “Annabelle”). While I do applaud “Wish Upon” for using short, concise trailers rather than giving the whole thing away, the insistence of trying to make this Chinese wishing box an iconic figure before the film even hits theaters kinda got on my nerves before the film’s first frame ever even projected. “Wish Upon” needed to rely on its own strengths to reach that status.
Clare (Joey King) is a high school Junior who struggles in most aspects of her life. Her father (Ryan Phillippe) is an aloof dumpster diver who tends to embarrass her at every turn. Her and her friends, Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser, of Barb from “Stranger Things” fame) are relative outcasts and targets of the popular clique, headed by the cruel Darcie Chapman (Josephine Langford). One day, while dumpster diving, Clare’s dad finds an old, mysterious box with Chinese writing on it; knowing Clare takes Chinese at school, he gives it to her as a tone-deaf, misguided birthday present. Reading the lettering on the box, Clare deduces that the box offers her seven wishes, but is unable to read the rest. Jokingly asking the box to have Darcie rot, Clare begins to find that the box grants her actual wishes. What she doesn’t know is that the hidden messages left untranslated on the box begin taking those she loves from her at the price of every wish.
Here’s the thing, “Wish Upon” has every bit of potential to be a very effective teen horror film, but there’s just a lot of sloppiness in its execution that prevents it from being anywhere close to that. That being said, however unscary and sometimes even funny “Wish Upon” is, I actually found myself having a good time with it. As a massive fan of the “Final Destination” series, I like films that find ways to kill off its characters without having someone with a machete lob their head off. That sense of creativity is something I find incredibly fun to watch on screen. Are the death scenes in “Wish Upon” creative? No, especially in contrast with the super elaborate death scenes featured in the “Final Destination” films, but there comes a point where it becomes enjoyable to watch because some of the more ambitious scenes are handled so sloppily, showing its low budget a number of times. Now, I know this doesn’t excuse the film for not being particularly creative or visually satisfying, and in all honesty, is a huge cop-out on my part. But luckily a film like this benefits much more from a subjective viewer than one of an objective critic. Fun to watch, but perhaps not for the right reasons.
While the screenplay to the film is cliché and a bit ridiculous, the performances in the film, when not pressed from the haphazard direction, aren’t bad. King is quite good as Clare, and I say this mostly because Clare is a pretty reprehensible character, contrasting King’s inherent sweetness utilized in many of her other roles. Clare uses this box in such a selfish way that you actually begin to root for her comeuppance once she continues her reign of terror after knowing what the box can do. In a film that relies squarely on the death scenes, having a main character that actually deserves a comeuppance is something that makes the film a different sort of fun to watch. It’s a rarity where we can root against a protagonist, and it’s far more enjoyable than it sounds.
But here’s where “Wish Upon” stumbles more than it soars. While the film is incredibly enjoyable on a guilty pleasure front, it still suffers from a lot of things that aren’t so enjoyable. The biggest issue in “Wish Upon” is its PG-13 rating that hinders most of its death scenes fairly hard to put together. Even worse, the film doesn’t seem to be written as a PG-13 horror film, but as a film that was shot as a gruesome R-rated gorefest edited down to a lower rating for a younger audience and bigger box-office returns. So what we have is a film that has, while uninspired, grisly deaths, the editing of the film cuts away at just the right moment to make sure nothing pushes the film into a restricted category. While the tone of the film is very teen-oriented and becoming of its lower rating, its scenes of violence suggest that an otherwise more brutal film was intended. Had the film taken the R-rated route, I have no doubt I would’ve had a “positive rating” blast with this hot mess.
The film also struggles with tone a lot, going back and forth between a teen romantic comedy and a dark horror film every other scene. It’s almost as if two completely separate 45-minute short films were mashed together to create a 90-minute film that struggles to know what it really wants to be. One moment we have a super upbeat shopping sequence straight out of “Life-Size” and the next scene someone is dying a most horrific death with no real in-between.
And then there’s the direction. Helmed by “Annabelle” director John R. Leonetti, “Wish Upon” might be one of the most unsubtle horror films to come along in recent memory. While horror films are starting to become more artistic and deep, “Wish Upon” waves every bit of foreshadowing in front of you like one would wave a raw steak in front of a lion. The film has no qualms about treating its audience like children, because its tone would suggest that the film is aimed at middle schoolers who want to say they’ve seen a horror film in theaters. How do I know this? Because a film like “Wish Upon” would’ve been right up my alley in 8th grade. It’s no shame in context, but it doesn’t excuse the final product.
If “Wish Upon” does one thing exceptionally well, it’s that it has the best end credits sequence of any film of 2017 so far. Incredibly beautiful with much more quality and effort put into it than anything before it might suggest. Take that as you will.
“Wish Upon” is like if you took “Final Destination” and remade it into a Disney Channel Original Movie. As someone who loves both of those things, I had a lot of fun in this movie. As a film critic, this film is not objectively good. So I’m faced with a strange dilemma: do I say go for “Wish Upon” for the opportunity of dumb, juvenile, cheesy fun? Or do I face the reality that “Wish Upon” is a cliché-ridden, sloppily directed, occasionally unintentionally funny mess? And my final consensus is that I will do neither. I will say to turn “Wish Upon” into a fun drinking game when the film hits streaming softwares around Halloween. And here are my rules:
- A teenager does something a normal teenager would never do.
- Something unrealistic, overly coincidental or unintentionally hilarious happens (a death, jump-scare or otherwise).
- You predict how someone will die from obvious foreshadowing in the first act.
- Anytime Clare is generally an awful person.
- Anytime Ryan Phillippe does anything cringe-worthy (you don’t divorce Reese Witherspoon without paying a heavy price).
Directed by: John R. Leonetti
Starring: Joey King, Ki Hong Lee, Sydney Park, Shannon Purser, Sherilyn Fenn, with Elisabeth Röhm, and Ryan Phillippe.
Runtime: 90 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violent and disturbing images, thematic elements and language.
Broad Green Pictures presents, a Broad Green Pictures production, in association with Busted Shark Productions, a John R. Leonetti film, “Wish Upon”