By any normal standards, teen horror pic “Wish Upon” is a pretty bad movie. But its badness is of such a distinct and kooky character that it can’t help but exert an inadvertent charm. Anyone looking for actual scares, sparks of originality, or dialogue worth speaking is advised to look elsewhere. But for those who delight in pickup lines like “You dig on multiverses?,” newspaper headlines reading “Police Notice Uptick in Unusual Deaths,” or the idea that Ryan Phillippe playing soft-jazz saxophone is the pinnacle of human coolness, this gangly mess of a supernatural thriller has camp value to burn. Box office prospects look dim, but as fodder for dorm-room drinking games and giggly 7th grade slumber parties, “Wish Upon” might still have a future.
Directed by longtime cinematographer and “Annabelle” helmer John R. Leonetti, “Wish Upon” is essentially a dumbed-down update of W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” in which a cursed artifact gives its owner three wishes, with each of those wishes exacting a Dantescan counter-punishment. Here, the paw has been replaced with a Chinese music box, the number of wishes has been upped to seven, and the twisted irony that made Jacobs’ story so effective has been dropped entirely, with each wish simply leading to the elaborate death of an increasingly less marginal figure in our heroine’s life.
Said heroine is 17-year-old Clare (Joey King), a plucky if not-so-bright wallflower with a dark upbringing. Seen as a young girl in flashback, she once lived in an idyllic suburban home, until the day she came back from a bike ride to find her mother (Elizabeth Rohm) hanging from a noose in the attic. Since then, her house has fallen into total disrepair – her old training bike hasn’t even been moved from the front lawn in the ten years since, which seems a bit extreme – plus she’s bullied by a Regina George-clone named Darcie (Josephine Langford) at school, and her scraggly, depressive father (Phillippe) spends his days dumpster-diving for scrap metal.
One day, he finds an octagonal music box covered in Mandarin characters in a cemetery garbage bin, and leaves it on Clare’s bed as a present. Luckily, Clare knows just enough Chinese to read the part of the inscription that reads “seven wishes,” but not enough to read all the other parts, and so she makes an idle wish that Darcie might “just go rot.” The next day, Darcie wakes up with necrotizing fasciitis. A mysterious death in Clare’s circle soon follows.
With that, the film enters a long lather-rinse-repeat cycle in which Clare makes a new wish (riches, popularity, the affections of a mouthbreathing hunk (Mitchell Slaggert), a less-embarrassing father), and we wait to see which supporting player will get it next. By “Final Destination” standards, none of these gruesome ends are particularly creative – although one scene in a kitchen sparks some laughs by continually head-faking from one sinister appliance to another – and nor is there much investment in guessing who will meet them, as screenwriter Barbara Marshall has populated the film with only slightly more characters than she needs to allow Clare a seven-wish killing spree.
No, most of the film’s appeal comes from its sheer tonal oddness. While it never tips into knowing humor or self-parody, “Wish Upon” rarely feels much like a horror movie, with most scenes taking place in bright summery sunshine, and more energy pumped into a girls-night-out shopping montage than the sequences of mounting peril. It doesn’t help that most of the cast is forced into losing battles with some highly dodgy teen dialogue, or that there seems to have been strikingly little effort made to harmonize the performances. Playing Clare’s two besties are “Stranger Things” scene-stealer Shannon Purser and Disney/Nick alumna Sydney Park — the former underplays her role with something approaching naturalism, the latter blasts volleys of sass toward the rafters, and the pair seem less like clashing personalities than characters spliced in from two entirely different films.
Though she starts out brightly enough in the lead role, King never really gets a handle on her character, who grows more irritating and less comprehensible as the film progresses. Fortunately, she has a lifeline in Ki Hong Lee, who plays a sensible skater boy named Ryan. Not only functioning as Clare’s not-so-secret-admirer and eventual conscience, Lee must also serve as the film’s dispenser of ancient lore (complete with a “crazy wall” collection of newspaper clippings), and the speaker of the multiverse line quoted above. He doesn’t manage to sell all of this, but there’s a cockeyed playfulness to the performance that suggests he knows exactly what sort of movie he’s in. Viewers would be wise to follow his lead.