Editor’s Note: Wish Upon is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
If Wish Upon (A Star), the latest attempt at horror counter-programming during a typical summer crammed with sequels, prequels, and remakes, has anything to offer, it’s not in the scares, shocks, or jumps department (they’re few and far between). It’s also not in a stale, clichéd premise (seven wishes, “be careful what you wish for”) or the indifferent, lackluster execution by director John R. Leonetti (Annabelle, The Butterfly Effect 2, Mortal Combat: Annihilation) or screenwriter Barbara Marshall’s (Viral) tedious, uninspired remix of W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 short story, “The Monkey’s Paw.” It’s in the Final Destination-lite scenarios that play out after a cursed music box fulfills a user’s wish: “accidental” death for someone close to the user, like an oddball rich uncle, a friendly neighbor, or a stray character spliced into the film to drop exposition on the central character and one of her sidekicks. Each scene, however, offers little in the way of tension, suspense, or thrills. Instead, they feel like haphazard half-measures (because they are). Those half-measures ultimately prove fatal to the filmmakers’ obvious desire to turn Wish Upon into another money-churning series or franchise.
While the cast doesn’t embarrass itself, it’s hard to imagine any actor or actress associated with Wish Upon putting their performance on a highlight reel.
In a flaccid, scare-free prologue (an unfortunate signal of worse things to come), a preteen girl witnesses her mother’s (Elisabeth Rohm) suicide by hanging in the family home. It’s all a dream – or rather a nightmare – for Wish Upon’s central character, Clare Shannon (Joey King), a high-school teen with an amoral streak and a dumpster-diving, soft-jazz loving father, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), and a popular girl, Darcie Chapman (Josephine Langford), as her personal torturer. Clare may be on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder, but she’s alone in suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous high-school fortune. Her inner circle extends to her two best friends, June Acosta (Shannon Purser, Stranger Things) and Meredith McNeil (Sydney Park, The Walking Dead). Clare also crushes hard on a popular boy, Paul Middlebrook (Mitchell Slaggert), who barely acknowledges her presence, while ignoring the long, eager glances of another high-school mate, Ryan Hui (Ki Hong Lee, The Maze Runner series), she’s known since elementary school.
Each scene, however, offers little in the way of tension, suspense, or thrills. Instead, they feel like haphazard half-measures which ultimately prove fatal to the filmmakers’ obvious desire to turn Wish Upon into another money-churning series or franchise.
Clare’s father discovers music box covered with traditional Chinese characters on one if his dumpster dives. Instead of selling or trading the music box, he gives it to Clare. With just enough high-school Chinese to read the words “seven wishes” on the music box, Clare wishes an enemy extreme harm (i.e., skin rot). She gets her wish, but loses the family dog. Another wish elevates her and her father from poverty into wealth (literal wish-fulfillment, certainly, but also commentary on structural inequality in Trump’s America), but again comes at the cost of someone close to Clare (physically, if not emotionally). It takes four or five wishes before Clare – a bit more IQ-challenged than most horror film protagonists – finally realizes that the music box exacts a terrible price for every wish granted to her. By then, it’s practically too late for Clare to save herself. Given her callous disregard for the music box’s side effects, rooting for her to escape the music box’s ultimate price (it starts and ends with her soul) has become a non-starter.
Clare’s arrogance, selfishness, and egotism may have been intentional (she’s more villain than hero), but the borderline stereotypes and casual xenophobia of the music box’s origins aren’t. Marshall’s script borrows heavily on centuries-old, misguided ideas about Chinese culture, history, and spirituality. She doesn’t, however, do anything to modernize or contemporize those ideas to remove or eliminate the more problematic aspects of that cultural appropriation. Marshall’s script also plays around with the idea of the wish-granting music box becoming an addiction for Clare even after she learns of its unfortunate side effects for anyone close to her, but Marshall doesn’t bother to explore that idea or the subtext (Clare as an example or even the embodiment of post-millennial narcissism) beyond a line of dialogue or two. And while the cast doesn’t embarrass itself, it’s hard to imagine any actor or actress associated with Wish Upon putting their performance on a highlight reel to sell their talents or skill set to casting directors or producers.
Wish Upon's stale, clichéd premise and lackluster execution offer few scares, only a cynical attempt to create yet another another money-churning franchise.