Empty Box: Too many pulled punches water down silly "Wish Upon"

Wish Upon (2017)
89 min., rated PG-13.

A curious hybrid of a “be careful what you wish for” parable and a “Final Destination”-lite slasher is something one hasn’t seen in a while, though it feels closest to 1997’s dismal “Wishmaster,” itself an iteration of the 1902 short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs. Trade a wish-granting djinn or a mummified monkey’s paw for a music wish box with a high school milieu and so it goes with “Wish Upon,” a discouragingly flaccid fractured fairy tale that seems to have been slashed to pieces in the editing room, not only speeding up the progression of the story but watering down the gorings. A film of this nature doesn’t exactly require gore or violence, but if it relies on the hook of a demonic wish box having a blood price, shouldn’t the freak accident-style deaths at least be effective and not look obviously truncated? Punches have been pulled and corners have been cut to earn a teen-friendly PG-13 rating.

After witnessing her depressed mother (Elisabeth Röhm) hanging herself in the attic of their family home when she was just a child, teenager Clare Shannon (Joey King) is now having trouble surviving high school. She has two best friends in Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser) but gets bullied by mean girl Darcie Chapman (Josephine Langford) and pines after class hunk Paul (Mitchell Slaggert), while peer Ryan (Ki Hong Lee) has harbored a crush on her. When Clare’s junk-collecting father, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), goes dumpster diving and finds an ornate music wish box with Chinese writing, he gives it to his daughter as an early birthday present since she’s taking a class in the language. As the box promises seven wishes, Clare makes a wish that her bully would “rot,” which she does, and that her crush would fall in love with her, which he does. See the pattern here? As each wish comes true, someone close to her gets taken from Clare—could it be Ryan or nice neighbor Mrs. Deluca (Sherilyn Fenn)?—but as the box gives her a seemingly better life with financial riches, mall shopping montages and popularity, she likes the instant gratification, consequences be damned.

Something really creepy and thoughtful could have been done with this premise, but “Wish Upon” is pretty lame as both a horror movie and a nightmarish morality tale. Alas, the wickedly fun wish-fulfillment conceit is undermined by amateurish, heavy-handed direction by John R. Leonetti (2014’s “Annabelle”); a rushed, often dopey screenplay by screenwriter Barbara Marshall (2016’s “Viral”); and that damn compromised PG-13 rating that censors anything horrific in order to dodge an R. Early on, there is a little fun in Clare not being careful with the way she words her wishes and then seeing said wishes come to fruition, like the cruel Darcie Chapman waking up to her skin decomposing. From there, though, the film makes so many leaps that it’s hard to take any of it seriously, even as a real-world fantasy based on wishes. This film’s interpretation of popularity is having Clare walk into a party and have everyone (including a girl that hated her in the previous scene) cheering her on, and then after a character harms himself enough that an ambulance takes him away, he still shows up in school the next day. As much as Clare cries, there is just no weight to any of it. Also, for a director of photography on the first two “Insidious” films, Leonetti also shows none of the classy, atmospheric lensing and even little of the competence he displayed before, and no wonder because he isn’t his own cinematographer. 

The role of Clare, a modest, put-upon teen being enticed by getting everything she wants even at the price of others’ safety, was bound to make her a little less sympathetic in her rash and progressively selfish choices, but it’s hard to fault the accessible, baby-faced Joey King. Sydney Park has a vibrant, charismatic presence and provides levity as feisty gamer Meredith, one of Clare’s best friends, while Shannon Purser (best known as the gone-too-soon Barb in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”) deserved slightly more to do as June. Ryan Phillippe, now old enough to play a father, does what he can with such a thin role. Jonathan dumpster-diving with his friend across from Clare’s school embarrasses her, and why shouldn’t it? If he’s turning one man’s junk into his treasure, fixing it up and then selling it, that’s one thing, but it’s never made clear if Jonathan actually makes a living doing this. The viewer only ever sees the bearded Jonathan sitting around and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, until his once-failed jazz saxophone skills resurface and he can soon afford a razor.

When Clare finally realizes the price of her wishes and tries beating the curse, "Wish Upon" gets a little bit more interesting. As for the ways in which people meet their maker due to the blood price of the wish box, the film can't even get its calculated scares right, exploiting little fear with Victorian bathtubs, garbage disposals, elevator rides, and tire changes on the side of the road. The kills in the “Final Destination” series were usually unpredictable and elaborate by design but scarily unpreventable; the ones here are awkwardly staged, hilariously avoidable, and handled as perfunctory afterthoughts. Each set-piece builds with a modicum of squirmy suspense, but then cuts away so soon that a satisfying payoff is bungled; one death scene is so poorly shot and edited that one might actually miss how a character is impaled. Good for a few unintended giggles, the tame “Wish Upon” might satisfy undiscriminating teens who don’t yet have their driver’s license, but horror fans would have wished for a less silly treatment of this story.

Grade: C