Wish Upon Review: Teen-oriented thriller is a serviceable and well-produced slice of supernatural horror
There’s this unfortunate epidemic of old bastard critics like me watching contemporary, PG-13-rated horror movies designed for younger audiences and ripping them to shreds. This must stop. Because when it comes to mainstream dark fantasy and horror cinema, there is a long, noble history of movies being made as entry points into darker subject matters for teens, most of the time cast with younger, fresh faces. These films are both grooming grounds for said young talent and profitable escapism for kids on Friday nights to have some fun, get a bit spooked (but not too spooked) and they ultimately keep the film industry lubricated and moving along. And if some members of the audience watching these movies respond well to them, this just might start a lifelong love affair with horror and lead to deeper, darker explorations into filmed psychodrama. And that’s a good thing.
Which brings us to John R. Leonetti’s Wish Upon, the new, much-hyped horror thriller from the man who brought you The Conjuring spin-off Annabelle and designed in part as a star vehicle for The Conjuring‘s Joey King. It’s a movie made for kids who are well-past Goosebumps age but who aren’t quite ready for Cannibal Holocaust. It speaks to this generation’s hang-ups and social concerns and is geared primarily to young women, offering a teenage heroine who is flawed but tough, resourceful and who wants to do the right thing. It’s not aiming to re-invent anything, rather it only wants to offer a sold 90 minutes of escapism, of light romance, high school angst, family drama, bursts of comedy and yes, the odd blast of Grand Guignol to rattle its audience’s collective cages.
And yet, I have no doubt that many critics — who are not the demographic Wish Upon is intended for — will be unkind to the film, especially
King — looking like a young Racel Weisz — shines in the movie as Clare, a 17-year-old girl who lives with her widowed, garbage-collecting Dad (Ryan Phillipe, who still looks 15 and is not particularly credible as a craggy near 40-year-old working class schlep) in any-town USA (actually Toronto) and is still reeling from the inexplicable suicide of her beautiful mom seven years prior. Clare is kind of a misfit and though she has two amazing close friends (The Walking Dead‘s Sydney Park and Stranger Things‘ Shannon Purser), she is still dogged by the fact that the “mean girls” are mean to her and the school hunk won’t give her the time of day. When her Pop finds a really fancy music box in the trash and gives it to her as a gift, Clare makes an offhand wish for her chief nasty girl antagonist to suffer a particularly revolting fate. And when she does indeed fall prey to that fate, Clare begins thinking that this ornate Oriental box might just be blessed — or cursed — with the ability to grant wishes. Problem is, like in every wish-centric story since The Monkey’s Paw, every time the wisher gets her wish, the box counters it with a gruesome death of someone close to her. But will that grim revelation stop Clare from milking the music box for its worth?
Wish Upon spends a great deal of time developing Clare and King is certainly up for the task, committing to the role and helping make the character believable and likable, even when she’s making selfish mistakes that cause misery to those around her. The supporting cast is good too with Park adding scrappy comic relief as Clare best pal (Purser fares less appealing, but that’s more because of the script not giving her much to do) and Twin Peaks legend Sherilyn Fenn showing up to add class. There’s a dash of the Final Destination films here too and Leonetti clearly revels in sculpting operatic set pieces wherein the box causes fate to tear innocent people apart as its required “blood sacrifice.” Actor Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner) is good too as Clare’s lifelong classmate and potential love interest and who still holds a grudge after being framed for a fart by Clare in grade school. Yes, this is a horror movie with a running fart joke gag and if that makes you snarl, well, this movie ain’t for you.
The best part of Wish Upon and the one aspect that all fans of the genre will agree upon is the design of the box itself, a kind of Lament Configuration that opens and closes at will and a device that the filmmakers are clearly hoping will be fetishized enough to launch a franchise based around its mechanical coolness. With all the fast-talking teenie-bopper shenanigans afoot, the box and its consequences keep drawing the movie back into the dark and Leonetti balances both tones with skill.
While most jaded horror fans will no-doubt roll their eyes at Wish Upon‘s lightweight, familiar shocks (and might really balk at Phillipe’s ludicrous sax-dad transformation, but that’s another story), less cynical viewers will likely respond well to the movie, as they should. It’s a skillfully made slice of supernatural escapism and films like it are the foundation on which the horror genre has been built upon.