Wish Upon brings to mind “The Monkey’s Paw,” a short story by W. W. Jacobs. In it, an older couple comes into receivership of a mummified monkey paw capable of granting three wishes; however, each wish is accompanied by shocking consequences. You might also remember Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button,” adapted for an episode of the ‘80s revival of “The Twilight Zone” and a film starring Cameron Diaz titled The Box. Another couple is given the chance to earn a significant amount of money by pushing a button on a box, but someone they don’t know will die.
Reading both of these short stories or watching their respective adaptations would serve you much better than going to see Wish Upon, a film which uses the wishes-granted-with-bloody-consequences trope described in the paragraph above. It’s a horror movie without any horror or suspense, only offering a long wait for the inevitable. People die in this film; so what? What’s it to the lead character, Clare Shannon (Joey King), who can’t even put two and two together until it’s way too late for her and the unfortunate dead? And considering the film’s end (and mid-credits tease), what does any of this mean?
It means nothing. Characters are put into the film only to set them up as fodder for the script’s axe. If you’ve seen either Final Destination or Drag Me To Hell, you’ll know exactly how Wish Upon works and how it’ll all come together. You may even recognize shades of the little-seen Wishmaster. However, both Final Destination and Drag Me To Hell had actual suspense and depth of character, two vital things missing completely from Wish Upon.
Instead, we’re left with the ultimate in White Whine/First World Problems, as middle-class Clare tries to hack it in a high school where the privileged rule and the rest drool. Yeah, she’s embarrassed at her peers seeing her father Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe) dumpster-diving for junk treasure, and she suffers at the hands of raging bitch Darcie (Josephine Langford) and her coterie. But she’s not wanting for food, shelter, or even a computer or cell phone; she has loyal friends in Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser), and she even has a dog sleeping at her feet at night.
King plays Clare admirably, seeing as how she’s the only character given anything of any substance. Traumatized from witnessing her mother committing suicide during her childhood, she balances that trauma by being a pretty solid kid – smart, artistic, and generally unexceptional, with “unexceptional” being a good thing. Not “unexceptional” people run to the extremes, like Darcie with her bullying and Jonathan with his trash hoarding, the latter of which yields the artifact which drives this movie: a Chinese music box.
Jonathan finds this box in a trash pile and brings it home as a gift for Clare, thinking she could use her Chinese high school lessons to decipher the writing on it and open it. What could go wrong with that, especially when the only thing she can translate is “seven wishes”? So begins an arduous, rote, mechanical game of “Wish and Die,” with Clare making her wishes while the bodies pile up around her. These deaths seem to be on such a peripheral note to her that she doesn’t notice them coinciding with the wishes she’s making until someone way too close to her turns up dead.
John R. Leonetti’s direction makes tedium out of what could have been a suspenseful film. Instead, he makes it drag to the point of provoking a Pavlovian call-and-response, where the audience groans when the music box starts up due to Leonetti overplaying these moments. There’s nothing interesting about slowly seeing the box open and waiting for the invisible killer to take his payment for Clare’s wish. It’s exactly like watching Final Destination all over again, only these deaths can be blamed on someone trying to shortcut her way above her station, which – as mediocre as it might have been – wasn’t that bad to begin with.
The only reason this movie will wind up in the “horror” section on Netflix is because of the blood. You could excise almost every death scene and you’d still have a coherent film where people die of odd coincidences. What Barbara Marshall’s script seemingly takes forever to tell us is not to mess with fate, and it’s a hell of a lesson learned. But it’s one we’ve seen before, and it’s one we’ve seen done much better. Wish Upon tries so hard to be relevant in its timely attitudes toward bullying and teenage life, but it only serves to further define the hole in which society seems to be sinking. And no amount of wishes is going to be able to reverse that.