Wish Upon is such a weird little creature of a feature, not because what it portrays is by any means revolutionary or even in the least bit surprising, but because at its core it’s a film that firmly straddles a line between basic competence and low budget anarchic nonsense. That sounds like a recipe for something special, but unfortunately, Wish Upon feels like a low rent version of the properties that inspired it, and therefore isn’t really worth the time or expense unless you’re pretty desperate to get a wishes-gone-wrong fix.
Teenager Clare Shannon (Joey King) lives in a rundown house with her hoarder father (Ryan Phillippe) and is plagued by nightmares of her mother’s suicide ten years prior. However, when Clare’s father brings home a mysterious box with Chinese characters written on it, Clare’s life begins to change when she starts to make wishes on the box. These wishes miraculously come true, but Clare’s newfound gains come at the cost of the lives of those closest to her.
The main reason to see Wish Upon, if at all, is for the death scenes, which are some very well-shot exercises in anticipation and false starts. Rarely does the film resort to the dreaded jumpscare, but instead teases all the ways that a character could die with suggestive shots and angles that play with one’s sense of expectation, and while I wouldn’t call its deaths all that surprising or even especially gruesome, there’s a bit of sadistic enjoyment to be had in guessing just what fate will befall the box’s victims.
I only wish the other technical aspects of the film held up as well under scrutiny. The cinematography remains solid, but the editing is near-frantic, trying to cram as many shots into ninety minutes as it can without allowing any shot to linger long enough to emotionally resonate. The film is perfectly coherent, but we’re never given time to become comfortable with Clare and her social circle as fleshed out individuals that we might actually care about should they die. This is exacerbated by many scenes being paired with a pop rock soundtrack that completely sucks any tension out of a film that must inherently rely on its atmosphere rather than its special effects to sell the terror.
These issues might have been forgivable had the film had an exceptional script, and while this little morality play is well-acted and features more than a couple witty asides that I found pretty amusing, there are just as many lines that encourage a belabored groan—including a racist undercurrent of Orientalism as malevolent mysticism—and the play’s morality becomes more than a little muddled by the third act. Clare is a teenager, so it makes sense that she might become attached to the material and social wealth that the magic box grants her, but after realizing that the box’s price is the lives of her loved ones, SHE KEEPS WISHING! The narcissism and stupidity of the character may be entirely intentional, but it doesn’t make for a compelling narrative when a protagonist’s choices are as ridiculously disparate as remaining a loser in high school versus killing someone to gain popularity.
Wish Upon feels like the offspring of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Final Destination, yet is content to remain a C student and coast on the success of its parents. The film is, for the most part, competently made, but there’s a noticeable lack of thematic substance under the hood of a simple story of being careful what you wish for. There’s little ironic payoff and even less reason to care once things start going south for Clare, but if you’ve worn out your other horror-lite DVDs, there are definitely worse options. Just don’t expect it to be everything you wish it were.