What if there was a magical box that granted wishes, but there was a catch: for every wish granted, something awful would happen to someone you loved? That’s the premise of Wish Upon, a new film from Annabelle director John R. Leonetti. Mainstream horror movies seem to function as scare/catharsis delivery systems, almost more like drugs than art or entertainment. Thus product tends to skew utilitarian — how to combine Tried-And-True Horror Premise A with Tried-And-True Horror Premise B to create New Profits X — and Wish Upon is no different. In this case A = The Box and B = Final Destination.
But is that a bad thing? If you’re part of the target demographic who rushes out to see every new horror film, judging the quality of a new release is more or less binary: either it got your rocks off or it didn’t. For the rest of us, this kind of A meets B formula is either derivative art or an elegant engineering solution, depending on your perspective. Which is to say, studio horror movies are all, to a certain extant, reconfigurations of existing tropes. So The Box plus Final Destination? Sure, why not.
Joey King (last seen, or hopefully not seen, in Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here) plays main character Clare Shannon, your prototypical not-the-cool-girl in high school, who, wouldn’t you know it, likes to paint, has a pair of snarky friends (brassy Meredith, played by Sydney Park, and June, played by Shannon “Barb From Stranger Things” Purser), and gets tormented by the cool girl (Darcie, played by Josephine Langford). Darcie sarcastically calls Clare “winner” and she and her gay best friend Tyler (Alexander Nunez) roast Clare on Instagram, for the usual things, like being poor and having a dead mom, and having a still-living dad who does some kind of salvage work that involves picking through trash cans.
Clare’s dad is played by Ryan Phillippe, solid casting on account of both he and King have notably pouty lips, and he’s the one who finds the magical box on one of his dumpster dives one day outside a creepy mansion. He gifts it to Clare and off we go. Clare makes a wish, the box pops open to play some creepy music, and something bad happens. Like Final Destination, most of the tension comes from watching someone go about a mundane task — just gonna replace this light bulb over this vat of toxic waste! –– and anticipating how they might die gruesomely. This can be reasonably fun.
One of the best things to come out of this kind of mediocre genre horror is the renewed emphasis on composition and framing. Because the characters might die horribly any second, the filmmaking is all about creating anticipation, giving clues and feints based on what’s in focus or just out of focus, in the frame or just cut off, using a kind of old-fashioned, Hitchcockian, uniquely cinematic language.
Unfortunately those same genre forces that produce creative cinematography also seem to create thoroughly uncreative characters, almost as if the filmmakers are saying “You know the type…” and waving their hands so we can get on with all the killing. It’s easier to combine stock tropes (The Box plus Final Destination, say) when you populate them with stock characters. And so we’re kind of just supposed to accept that Darcie is the sadistic, popular, queen bee, because that’s the way she seems in the first two seconds we meet her. (At some point, some screenwriter has to question the conventional movie logic that the most popular kid in high school is also the most pointlessly cruel, but I admit, it’s probably not going to be the one trying to move the action along to get to the horrible garbage disposal accident.)
Likewise, Ryan Phillippe plays the well-meaning single dad, because these movies always have a well-meaning single dad. Though his character does have a slight twist, which is that he moonlights as a saxophonist, which he tends to play sexily in the twilight hours, like a shirted version of the Greasy Sax Dude from Lost Boys. Look out, everyone, it’s Bleedin’ Gums Phillippe!
I’m making fun of it, of course, but that’s probably by design. These movies are meant to be interactive, where when you’re not jumping out of your seat you’re clapping and laughing at the characters like the studio audience on a day time talk show. And Wish Upon certainly evokes its share of “Ooh,” “Whoa,” and “No, not the manhole cover!”
The major flaw in Wish Upon is that it takes far too long for Clare to understand how the box works, which is the movie’s basic premise. Leonetti and/or screenwriter Barbara Marshall seem to think that the film’s conflict is “How are they going to stop this evil box?” when it should probably be why Clare keeps making wishes (and mostly lame ones) even after it’s abundantly clear that someone close to her dies horribly every time she does. Trouble is, the latter conflict is more a question of character, and Wish Upon isn’t really designed to explore character. Only teen drama and garbage disposal accidents.
And so we just get more and more goofy deaths as Clare goes full Gollum, with diminishing returns. When Wish Upon finally ends with a transparent attempt to pimp a potential future franchise, it only crystallizes the sense that this was always an entrepreneurial endeavor, not a creative one. Don’t hate the player, I guess.