With 'Wish Upon' You Come for the Horror and Stay for the Comedy
The clinical precision of John R. Leonetti’s simplistic horror premise is undermined by set pieces that resemble slapstick comedy routines.
Wish Upon might be the funniest film of 2017! Unfortunately, none of those laughs are intentional.
This teenager-in-peril horrorshow is a decidedly tame PG-13 affair, with very little blood and absolutely no guts. The clinical precision of its ingeniously simplistic premise is undermined by horror set pieces that resemble slapstick comedy routines. Any suspense it does manage to generate is released through laughter rather than screams.
Director John R. Leonetti’s paean to teen angst feels, ironically, like it was conceived by teenagers. Its a bulletproof concept -- a musical Chinese wishing box grants seven wishes in exchange for a “blood price” -- is the stuff of hyper-caffeinated spit-balling at the Student Union. This airtight premise allows the filmmakers to clearly establish the rules of their world; a basic narrative requirement often sidestepped by modern horror films in favor of cheap jump scares or mindless bloodshed. We understand immediately that when a wish is made, there will be blood to pay.
Leonetti (Annabelle,2014) generates palpable tension by intercutting storylines that dare the audience to guess which unlucky character is about to get whacked when a wish has been made. Sadly, the unimaginative resolution of this tension is thoroughly unsatisfying and often hilarious. When a victim slips and hits their head in the bathtub, for instance, it’s impossible not to laugh when they promptly sit up and smash their face on the faucet. It’s a textbook example of how to structure comic timing in a scene.
Were the premise carried to deeper levels, examining the dynamic opposition between selfish desire and social responsibility, Wish Upon might have challenged the viewer to re-adjust their own moral compass. One friend even scolds our High School heroine, Clare (Joey King), for focusing on her own social agenda (“I wish I was the most popular girl in school!!”) rather than curing cancer or besting world hunger. Still, Leonetti is content to plunge headfirst into the self-absorbed world of teenage wish fulfillment with predictably shallow results.
Joey King, Ki Hong Lee, and Alice Lee in Wish Upon (2017)
Of course, criticizing teenagers for being self-absorbed is like scolding cheesecake for being decadent; it’s what they do. Stephen King perfected the conceit that ‘High School is Hell’ back in the '70s with Carrie and filmmakers have been kicking that bloated corpse ever since. Leonetti deploys the requisite modern tweaks to Wish Upon, including the nuclear weapon in the bully’s arsenal; social media. If Instagram had existed back in the '70s, Carrie would have dispensed with the formality of Prom and just murdered her classmates outright.
Here, Clare and her cadre of outcasts endure Afterschool Special barbs from the beautiful people. Juvenile insults are tossed (“You’re a selfish bowl of bitch sauce!”) and banners for the Senior Scavenger Hunt are desecrated. All the sordid drama is enough to make a poor girl wish that her enemies would “just rot or something”.
Clare’s inability to put the pieces together (wish = death) is indicative of the underlying stupidity in Wish Upon. Even with a body count high enough to make Frank Drebin suspicious, Clare needs to consult an expert in Ancient Chinese to make the intuitive leap. Hell, most people would have trashed this musical wishing box the first time they heard its creepy tune, which sounds like something written by Satan’s court composer. When you’re dealing with a simplistic plot that spells out everything, the characters look laughably stupid when they can’t catch up.
There’s not much character detailing to help them along, either. Clare is about as one-dimensional as they come, which makes her eventual descent into madness feel melodramatic and (again) unintentionally comical. She stalks about the room ranting to the walls like the star of some cheesy one-act play, occasionally glaring crazy-eyed at the gaudy wishing box lying on her cushy king-sized bed.
Clare’s father, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), fares even worse. Not only is he reduced to being a pathetic garbage picker (for the sole purpose of finding the wishing box in a trash can), he’s given the ‘backstory’ of being a frustrated saxophone player. When Clare wishes that her dad would “quit being embarrassing”, Jonathan picks up his sax and serenades a pack of drooling teenage girls. It’s this sort of obvious miscalculation that leaves you wondering if the filmmakers are trying to be funny. Mostly, you’re left feeling sorry for Phillippe, yourself, and music in general.
Wish Upon almost feels like a deliberate introduction into the horror genre for cautious adolescents. Nothing is too scary. There’s not enough blood to make anyone queasy. Each stressful situation is defused with ridiculous, almost Rube Goldbergian nonsense. None of the characters are relatable, so you don’t have to fret about their fate. Everything is simple and easy to follow. It’s the perfect primer for more challenging movies down the road.
In the interest of intellectual honesty, however, one must admit that Wish Upon is an entertaining diversion. Empirically, it's a bad film, but unlike Leonetti’s dreadfully boring Annabelle, it values pacing and respects the logic of its own premise. And it’s so damn funny! There are certainly worse ways to spend 90 minutes if you’re looking for something low-impact with no scares. It’s a benign horror movie for grandma and her teenage grandkids to watch at the Cineplex on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Everyone else should avoid it like a demented musical Chinese wishing box.