It’s interesting that the desires of “young girl’s hearts,” to use the Evil Queen’s phrase, never seem to change. Snow White learns that her apple is a magic wishing apple. So what does she wish for? A big fancy house, a beautiful boyfriend, to become royal, to have no troubles at all. These are almost exactly the teenage Clare’s wishes in Wish Upon, a title which refers to Disney’s mantra that you will get anything you desire if the desire is strong enough. But what if those things aren’t what you really need? What if you’re a flimsy maladjusted crotch-dumpling who freely offers human sacrifices for fame, fortune, and fancy boys? As one of Clare’s attractive but self-described “unpopular” friends points out, “You could have wished for world peace!” Wish Upon knows how it could be criticized and preempts it like this, with the effect of an animal cued for the slaughter tripping itself onto its own neck instead.
These may not be the real desires of young girl’s hearts, but just the perception of them by forty-year-old screenwriters attempting to speak like children (when was the last time you heard a kid say “Bitchin’?”). In fact, the scariest thing about Wish Upon is how representative it is of our misunderstanding of youth culture (a rights-free version of “Pokemon Go” shows up, not only as an aggressive ploy for relatability but also as a mushy excuse for a certain event later on). This film is an attack on girls particularly, by reducing them to vain, stupid mongrels gnawing at each other for a slice of beefcake (but if you’re worried, it doesn’t spare the boys either, dulling them into doe-eyed sex perverts and stalkers). If Dazed and Confused is the opus of kids hanging out, this is The Room of teen desires. It’s debilitating.
I’ve yet to mention the fact that Wish Upon is a horror film. This movie is eerily comfortable offering nothing new to horror movies with a premise that, when it was just on paper, was okayed by someone without any plea for originality. You’ve seen this premise every Friday night: a mystical object offers wishes in exchange for a “price.” You’ve seen it on Rick and Morty and in a thousand marquees and even in O. Henry. But though it’s awkwardly unscary, even anti-scary because of your inevitable laughter, its flaws are deeper than its approach to its genre. Notwithstanding the lack of any insight into horror, which is not so unique, I’m more concerned about these characters, which are some of the most detached people I've ever seen in a film about children. They seem cut out of tween magazines and propped up against a stiff breeze. They’re breathtaking.
Clare (Joey King) is just clumsy enough to snuggle into the archetype of being unpopular, despite being cute enough to helm a film. She’s pretty but not glamorous, headstrong but not assertive, like if Alex from Modern Family had even less personality. Her piddling wishes, no more significant than Snow White’s and filtered through excessive high school vanity, claim the lives of people around her at random. These people are not required to be important to her, but only to be in this film in general. When she learns this, she continues compulsively trading lives for “being the most popular girl in school” and “a cooler dad.” She finds him with a new haircut and a yummy beard, swirling his lips around a saxophone in the parlor of their new mansion. He’s got two top buttons undone. Her friends drool.
There’s a problem with Clare’s motivation and it becomes Wish Upon’s most pungent failure. The film begins with her witnessing her mom’s suicide, which you would think would be the film's way of giving her sympathy but it seems to be an excuse for the film to write in her angsty disdain for her dad (Ryan Phillippe), who seems like a pretty nice guy. Now she’s a back-of-the-class smarty, hated by people for no reason (the cheerleaders toss their lattes at her), and she’s always embarrassed by her garbage-collecting dad, who doesn’t have the dad skills to dumpster dive at least another block from the school. Where you would normally identify with her plight, her idea of herself, her reaction to other people, is a place blocked off by random contradictions. She’s shy but stands up for herself when provoked, leaving no room for growth. She’s pretty but acts like she’s not (her unpopular friends are also bouncy and attractive). She doesn’t enjoy the parties she’s put out about not being invited to. She regrets killing the people she continues to kill as part of her compulsion to make trivial wishes for things she doesn't need. She’s a part of a young America that may have existed in the 90s, probably never existed at all, and which the screenwriters just assume is what kids are into these days.
This is the basic level at which nothing in Wish Upon could ever work. Even if the horror was well-crafted, it can’t survive this detachment, this outcast who stands up for herself and feels sorry for it and does it again, who wishes for nothing important despite thinking about things as big as the multiverse.
The Chinese music box that offers her the wishes is far from scary (I’m now appreciating the creepy omnipresence of the device in Oculus, a film that didn’t reach its potential but at least had some). More heinously it offers Wish Upon many awful opportunities for “search results” scenes, such as looking into the history of its previous owners (all dead) or translating its cover from the safety of a rights-free version of Google. One of Wish Upon’s first jobs was convincing us that this thing is dangerous, but only Clare seems to be responsible for the carnage happening all around her. The Chinese demon really just enables her.
But what if that was really true? What if Clare was an outcast-turned-sadist who relished wishing for trinkets and letting the people who beat her down pay for them with blood, sort of a post-millennial Carrie? Anything unique could make these average performances and ho-hum pacing pop out but it’s a contented film, a fat cat film, a movie that knows it will double its budget in one weekend and sit the rest out. I’m shocked this film cost $12 million; where did it all go? For reference, consider that Oculus cost $7 million and The Babadook cost only $2 million. Wish Upon is 90 minutes exactly, as if by a pact with a puzzle box to underachieve (I guess that's also how the film's tagline ended up being, "Be Careful What You Wish For"). Then again, director John R. Leonetti’s debut film was Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, a film that cost $30 million (that’s $10 million for every percent of approval on Rotten Tomatoes). I guess we should be thankful.
Oh, and all the deaths in the film are funny. They could be transferred without editing to a parody film. They include strangulation by garbage disposal, impalement by tripping into a cow statue, and even slipping in the tub. This last was a riot: an old man bumps his head, gurgles helplessly under the water, conks his noggin on the spigot. I kept waiting for the Life Alert logo to appear.
Wish Upon also has a thing with near misses. Often two characters will be in near-death situations simultaneously (I suppose this is the film’s acknowledgment that either by themselves would be snore-inducingly predictable). Clare’s dad, for instance, is changing a tire while another character is wandering around in the dark. Both portend death, in the dad’s case because his dad-jeans keep nudging towards the car-jack as he crawls under for a dropped bolt. The film will pick one as the death and one as the miss, hoping they had you going while they were deciding which was which. Wish Upon gets no points for subtlety but that's not the case with the music box itself – it kills people in ways that could only be described as reasonable home accidents perpetrated by conscientious unfortunate people.
How does the box initiate this subtle lack of safety protocol? The garbage disposal that catches a lady’s braid and snaps her neck is working properly. She reaches in several times for a near miss and then finally accidentally bumps the “on” switch while her hand is fishing out the butt of a turnip or whatever. Does the box possess cosmic causality influence, to make people trip into pointy objects and kill themselves with kitchen appliances? Clare and her Chinese plot device (Ki Hong Lee) talk about the multiverse at several points, portending the film’s pretentious ending. This implies that the object has great power, but it establishes no rules or limitations. Clare may be dumb, but worse is the fact that the film offers her nothing to be outsmarted by.
In place of a unique concept, a rote horror film needs consistent rules to weaponize its predictability. This is something they need and struggle with, like a teen reluctant to be seen with their lame friends. I recently criticized It Follows for this issue, where a changing mythology spoiled the tension of its later acts, but in that case it was only because the possibilities were so potent to begin with. In the case of the deadening Wish Upon, not knowing the box’s powers destroys the threat of its existence since we know it can do anything. The fact that Clare cares about some of the people who die but others are merely acquaintances confuses us about her motivations. We don’t know how she’s feeling about the price of her stupidity. She even abandons her friends when it suits her, and fixes it by wishing that everyone loved her all the time. Her rationale seems to be different in every scene, as though the film expects us to accept that teenagers are just inconsistent. Her behavior reminds me of how The Big Bang Theory perceives menstruation.
Barbara Marshall might as well be a deity locked up in a music box. She writes Wish Upon like she’s never met a child before, or seen a real smartphone, or been to school since 1992. Google the cover for another of her films, Triple Dog, to see just how much execrable 90s ‘tude someone can cram into one image. Wish Upon is the downplayed version of that (when people wear sassy baseball caps they at least wear them forwards) but it’s so out of touch it could be written by aliens who think R.L. Stine and TeenVogue designed the whole world together.
I believe that a review that contains no positives at all should be a rare exception, and Wish Upon made me work to come up with one. It's bargain bin horror movie tradition to tarnish at least one great actor in it by turning them into a salary collector (a few months earlier The Bye Bye Man abused both Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Ann Moss by recruiting them to parody their profession). So I mean it unironically when I say that Wish Upon could have been worse if it had any better actors in it.
I don’t know about you, but my very first wish would benefit everyone on earth. It would save us all exactly 90 minutes, better spent playing Pokémon, or pulling out each other’s hair over a boy, or, you know, whatever kids are into these days.
Image is a screenshot from the film.