Wish Upon is a stale, off-brand soda of a movie: It has all the active ingredients of one of the best horror movies of the decade, The Conjuring, yet it’s more apt to be the butt of a joke than a satisfactory replacement. The Conjuring’s critical and commercial success established a cinematic universe unto itself, with spin-offs like the inferior Annabelle, focused on the haunted doll that served as the opening paranormal example in the original film. John R. Leonetti directed Annabelle to great financial success, so he has been tapped for another horror boasting some tangential connection to the goodwill still emanating from the haunted history of The Conjuring. Wish Upon may be the film to finally snuff that out.
The similarities between horror films aren’t limited to their creative talent. Star Joey King broke out as one of the Conjuring daughters plagued by the supernatural and now leads this, a film whose tonal inconsistencies plague her performance as Clare. She cannot surmount Wish Upon’s strange mish-mash of high school dramedy and kill-happy horror camp, one second asked to channel Lord of the Rings-like obsession, whimpering vulnerability the next and cocky high school cool soon after. These are not evolutions, as the movie desires them to be, but moody skips and hiccups so violent that they threaten to shake the film apart.
The problems all begin when Clare’s dumpster-diving father (Ryan Phillippe) finds a magical music box covered in ancient Chinese inscriptions. It’s never made clear if her dad scraps these items for a living, dives for a hobby or operates in some gray area in between—the only thing we know for sure is that he does all this in the company of his friend Carl (Kevin Hanchard, in one of the most pointless roles I’ve ever seen in a film) and in plain view of his daughter Clare’s school, sometimes directly across the street. This is almost as embarrassing for Clare as the dialogue is for us, as its once-probably-cutting-edge script falls to the ultimate teen slang killer: time. The 2015 Black List script tries to be too cute with its youthful references and dates itself as laughably as a reference to fidget spinners will date this review.
These embarrassments (and enough high school Mandarin to read a few characters on this ancient box) drive Clare to use the box to wish. A happier father, a blighted bully, a fortuitous windfall—that sort of thing. Her dog hates it, of course, just like he did at the very beginning of the film when it showed us that Clare’s mother (Elisabeth Rohm) tossed that same box in the garbage before hanging herself. Always trust the dog. The music box eventually opens, post-wish, and chimes its tune intercut with the brutal demise of one the film’s auxiliary characters, like the neighbor played by Sherilyn Fenn with an egregiously long Chekhov’s hairpiece.
The most disappointing part of Wish Upon is that it doesn’t even do the clever version of an avarice-punishing wish parable in which the genie grants the wish in an overly literal or spiteful way that backfires upon the wisher. Even if it’s played out, it still allows for timeless delight in the ironic consequences of greed. Instead, here each wish claims an unrelated life.
These poor souls aren’t connected by theme or event, but mere social connection (and recent screen time) with Clare. Like a Final Destination movie without the clever Rube Goldberg death machines, the film uses a call-and-response take on horror that offers situations and pay-offs without novelty or meaning. The audience is trained to understand that the music box’s opening signifies the death of the person we cut to next, but Wish Upon’s plotting is all too arbitrary to be earnestly enjoyable. Instead, it frees up our disinterested minds to focus on things the filmmakers likely didn’t want us to notice, like the continuity errors found in the inconsistent pubiness of Phillippe’s beard. His hunk-like stature fluctuates with the wishes of his daughter, too, but sometimes the movie forgets that and his roguish stubble suddenly grows out to full neckbeard from scene to scene.
Aside from the wish-based kills, the rest of the film is too tired to interest even the lightest of horror fans. An evil magic music box, a dead dog, a doomed family. After working so well in The Conjuring, the last drops of spook juice are finally being wrung from this formula. As Clare navigates newfound wealth, popularity and high school romance, people drop dead around her with so little impact that it becomes hilariously callous. Coupled with the too-loud pop music cues that inappropriately and jarringly blare at random times, the film never creates an atmosphere of tension or seriousness, let alone fear. Clare needs to solve the mystery of the box but it’s never important enough to her or the movie for her to stop killing people. There’s something to be said about the cruel self-centeredness of puberty, but certainly not here.
A few visual reveals and framings highlight the skill of Michael Galbraith’s camerawork and his working relationship with former cinematographer Leonetti, but every other aspect of the movie lets him down. The huge age difference between the 17-year-old King and the 30-year-old, completely miscast Ki Hong Lee, as well as the squandering of friends/sidekicks Shannon Purser and Sydney Park, leap out as examples of misjudgments the Wish Upon team made that would be quite forgivable if they could just land one solid scare. Without that, the very core of this kind of teen summer schlock, Wish Upon will only be remembered as a laughable neighbor to the Wishmaster series.
Director: John R. Leonetti
Writer: Barbara Marshall
Starring: Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Elisabeth Rohm, Ki Hong Lee, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Sherilyn Fenn
Release Date: July 14, 2017
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.