The summer box office is always crowded with big studio tentpoles, blockbusters designed to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, so it’s rare to see a studio taking a chance on something very different. It’s tough not to admire distributor Broadgreen’s ambition for releasing WISH UPON, a small teen horror movie, one week after the opening of SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING and the same day WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is released. Maybe their counterprogramming will work and they’ll have a surprise hit—and, in that case, probably also a new franchise—on their hands. And while WISH UPON is hardly an instant classic, or even a “good” movie exactly, that wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing that could happen in a post-FINAL DESTINATION horror scene.
Clare Shannon (Joey King) lives with her father Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe) and their dog Max in the house where Clare grew up and her mother Johanna (Elisabeth Röhm) committed suicide when Clare was very young. Jonathan scavenges for scrap metal and other stuff he can sell for a living, a vocation Clare finds deeply embarrassing. She’s terrorized by uberbitch mean girl Darcie Chapman (Josephine Langford) on a daily basis, but luckily has two best friends in Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser) to help her muddle through high school. One day Jonathan finds an ornate music box with Chinese characters on it and brings it home as an early birthday present for Clare, who is learning Chinese in school. She’s initially annoyed, but comes around when she roughly translates enough text on the box to learn it grants its owner seven wishes.
As this happened to be a particularly difficult day with her popular nemesis, Clare angrily wishes ill toward Darcie Chapman. The next morning, something very bad happens to Darcie and something much worse happens to faithful old Max, but Clare doesn’t—or doesn’t want to—connect the dots. Soon after, Clare enlists the help of classmate Ryan (Ki Hong Lee) to help translate the ancient Chinese characters on the box. But in the meantime she’s happy to make another wish or two. Or four. Each time she makes a wish, it seems like something terrible happens. Who’s next? Her loving but embarrassing father? Her kind neighbor Mrs. Deluca (Sherilyn Fenn)? Her friends Meredith and June? What happens when the last wish is granted? And what really led to her mother’s mysterious suicide?
If the basic framework of WISH UPON seems familiar, it’s no surprise. At its heart, it’s sort of a loose take on “The Monkey’s Paw” without the horrific irony that accompanies that famous story’s wishes. Clare makes a wish, something bad happens to somebody, but not necessarily anyone Clare cares about or who has any relation to the wish in question. As in any such film, the fun is in the specifics. Director John R. Leonetti (a veteran cinematographer who recently directed ANNABELLE) stages a series of parallel situations for characters that are bound to end poorly for them, drawing out tension from which one will lose out. Parallels to FINAL DESTINATION are unavoidable, as characters are put in increasingly ridiculous circumstances, frequently in prosaic settings. One character’s extended pas de deux with the switch for their garbage disposal is particularly amusing.
The screenplay by Barbara Marshall, who also wrote last year’s teen apocalypse film VIRAL, has some canny observations of its young characters’ behavior and the cast is mostly very good in their somewhat limited roles. Joey King is an endearing lead, although she has the basically impossible task of keeping Clare somewhat sympathetic as the body count rises. Sydney Park and Shannon Purser are great as Clare’s best friends, but it would have been great to see them get time to do more.
Ki Hong Lee is well-cast as Ryan, who is refreshingly a fully-developed character and potential romantic interest for Clare rather than just a mechanism to move the plot along. One other supporting cast member of note is Mitchell Slaggert as hilariously creepy “popular guy” Paul, who becomes one of the targets of Clare’s wishes. Leonetti keeps the cheap thrills coming at a good clip, and with his able cast and a fantastic score by tomandandy (who had also provided the score for the recent 47 METERS DOWN and many low-budget genre projects that have been elevated by their work), WISH UPON is at least never boring.
That said, it’s certainly not going to give any viewers an intellectual workout. WISH UPON is a solidly built PG-13 teen horror movie that does exactly what it promises to do and not a whit more. It’s the kind of thing that is destined to hit home video and/or VOD in an “unrated” version, and its death scenes certainly look like they’ve been truncated to get a more teen-friendly rating for its theatrical run. It also could easily inspire a long franchise where the demonic music box moves from person to person, which again could potentially be a positive thing for studio horror. The first FINAL DESTINATION movie was a solid but largely unremarkable horror film, but its sequels took the concept and really ran with it to highly entertaining results. At best, we might get a similar series from this film if it’s successful. At worst, it’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a half in a movie theater. Anyone looking to do just that and unwilling or uninterested in committing the better part of three hours to Summer blockbusters might find WISH UPON a worthwhile diversion.
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