Directed by John R. Leonetti
Horror fans love a supernatural baddie – whether it’s ghouls that go bump in the night, things that fly or curses that lead to girls crawling out the telly. But of all the supernatural forces in the genre, there’s yet to be a great movie about one that grants desires (unless you count any of the 4 Wishmaster films or The Outing, but I don’t). And when I heard about this new offering, from John R. Leonetti of Annabelle and Butterfly Effect 2, I wasn’t expecting this to change. Still, one can always wish.
After a powerful opener, that gives some backing story, we’re thrust into the present where misfit teenager Clare (King) struggles with the wrath of bullies, being broke and the embarrassment of her junk-scavenging dad (Phillipe). Then there’s that nice boy Paul (Slaggert) who doesn’t know (or care) she exists. However, her luck seems to change for the better when she comes across a Chinese wishing box that gives her whatever she wants. A few realistic teen wishes later, and she’s the most popular, wealthy and sought after girl in school. Life would be perfect if each wish didn’t result in somebody she knows getting elaboratly killed. But can she really give up the opportunity to have everything she ever wanted just because a few people die? And even if she wants to, will the box let her? Well you’ll have to bloody well watch it to find out.
So be careful what you wish for – that’s the message. Horror fans will likely recognise this cautionary tale as a variant of The Monkey’s Paw: a moralistic journey of joy, greed and hubris. As such, moderately well-versed audiences will be two acts ahead of Claire from the get-go. Thus even when the third act drops, what I guess is meant to be, a twist you may be entertained but you won’t be surprised. Now with the right use of dramatic irony, this isn’t necessarily a problem if the execution is good enough – for example, the humorous misdirection in the Final Destination films. Yet while Wish Upon, at times, flirts with a similar how-done-it structure, the deaths simply aren’t spectacular enough to be worth the pay-off (although a darkly funny one involving garden equipment comes close). Considering the villain doesn’t have a physical form, the only modest sense of threat is a real problem. After a while it’s also frustrating just how long it takes Claire to figure out its modus operandi when she has so much darn evidence. There’s having a fatal flaw and then there’s stupidity. Come the later scenes when she knows it, but still makes wishes, people in the audience started laughing. Phrases such as “bitch sauce”, which sound like now stale leftovers from Juno, didn’t help either.
It’s not all bad though! First off, for all the predictability I genuinely enjoyed it. The pacing is exemplary, with a good escalation and it’s still enough fun to keep you engaged. This is helped by a cool presentation, with smart visual flourishes, that make every scene look special. There’s also a motif about alternative universes that goes in a neat, if underdeveloped, direction. Joey King is genuinely brilliant too, being both a bug eyed good girl and an utter brat when the script demands it. She’s a charismatic leading lady and one I could see younger audiences identify with. I suspect her performance is the main thing that will make people care about Claire’s journey from pariah to socialite and back again. Ex heart-throb Phillipe excels in conveying warmth beneath a pathetic exterior, and whilst it’s hard not to see Shannon Purser as Barb from Stranger Things she’s a solid support. To top it off, Alice Lee is a force of nature as the nerdy but dynamic Gina. Frankly, this is the sort of cast filmmakers would wish for, coupled with a script that at times feels like an ironic punishment.
That being said, as per Leonetti’s prior effort Annabelle I suspect this movie isn’t aimed at men in their 30s. Thus I appreciate it’s difficult for me to say how well it’ll go down with the intended young market, who I suspect will be a lot more generous. Yet unlike last year’s Friend Request, in which I could see more merit, I don’t know that Wish Upon has the same flair. Didactic lessons about being nice and ignoring peer pressure etc. are all very well, and arguably a staple of teen horrors. But they need to be matched by a creative drive and the guts to run with the concept. Consequently, the wish making subgenre still doesn’t have great entry. Although it’s got another reasonable one.