Death wish, or: What you will have while watching this movie
On the banality of Wish Upon's deaths, the apathy of its filmmaking, and the imagination it desperately needed
Wish Upon Broad Green Pictures
Director: John R. Leonetti
Screenplay: Barbara Marshall
Starring: Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Sydney Park, Shannon Purser, Ki Hong Lee, Josephine Langford, Mitchell Slaggert, Alice Lee and Elisabeth Röhm
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 30 minutes / 2.35:1
July 14, 2017
(out of four)
It takes a very bad horror movie to make death seem so unimaginably boring - not simply pedestrian but excruciatingly so. Wish Upon is an exceptionally bad horror movie.
It's not just the dullness of the deaths that's the problem, but the rote, systematic requirement of those deaths. It's a perfect storm of a director and screenwriter who are each other's exact equal in their mutual lack of imagination, at least if this movie is any indication. A monkey's-paw story like this one is so naturally rich with possibilities, it's a genuine accomplishment to pull it off in such ineffectual fashion as director John R. Leonetti and writer Barbara Marshall do here. This is what they're working with: An unlucky, unpopular teenage girl gets her hands on a magic Chinese music box that grants her seven wishes - all of which come at a terrible price. That "terrible price" is always the same - someone dies - and so we get a formulaic procession of granted wishes and punishments by proxy.
That the punishment is always a death suggests an absence of creativity we'll get to in a minute, but even accepting the terms Wish Upon sets: The deaths it gives us are never shocking deaths, they are not memorable deaths, they are not strange deaths or hilarious deaths or creative deaths or horrifying deaths. Not a single death has any effect but to reinforce the rules of the premise. Where is anyone's macabre imagination? Where is anyone's sense of perverse fun? And, to take it further, why must it always be death? Why did the filmmakers limit themselves to that single result, as opposed to the litany of other terrible consequences that could befall its victims - things that could be as dire as death itself, if not more so?
I'm reminded of some interviews Joel and Ethan Coen gave about A Serious Man and the Job-like odyssey of its central character. They acknowledged the mischievous delight they had in coming up with ways to "torture" their poor hero, whose life becomes an endless cascade of inexplicable misfortunes and surreally unanswered questions. "The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry," they said in this interview. "His life just progressively gets worse." Wish Upon hasn't the same intentions nor is it after the same results, but if you're making movie built on a neo-karmic (or reverse-karmic, depending on how you feel about the nobility of the character's wishes) sequence of events in which one person is unwittingly responsible for a whole series of gruesome deaths, you better know how to have fun with that premise. You're making a movie ostensibly about the absurd not-quite-randomness of death - a movie broken up at regular intervals by entire setpieces designed exclusively to kill one character or another - you better have a playful sadistic streak. Your imagination needs an outlet, these scenes are that outlet. In fact, it's beyond even those scenes. The premise is full of inherent ironies and unintended repercussions and cruel twists of fate; even the character's granted wishes sometimes go awry, warping into something she never asked for and never desired. This whole entire thing is a grand cosmic joke ... made by filmmakers who don't get the joke. Leonetti and Marshall have neither a sense of humor nor a sense of dramatic impact, and Wish Upon requires both.
The closest the movie gets to any sort of playfulness in its build-up toward death is a scene in which a character incurs the wrath of a garbage disposal - a typical enough horror-movie setup that Leonetti at least has the wisdom to draw out a bit with a few misdirects and false crescendos. The problem is ultimately in the scene's clumsy staging, in particular the graceless moment in which a tumble of the character's hair hangs all too obviously over the drain. The scene's build-up is paced rather well, but that's a double-edged sword; the more you draw a moment like that out, and toy with an audience, the better your payoff has to be. This scene's payoff ain't worth it. And let me reiterate: That scene is Wish Upon at its best.
The sad thing is, there are countless filmmakers out there who - if you gave them this basic idea and allowed them to just go with it - would have the time of their life. The most shrewdly, gleefully macabre among them would knock it out of the park.
Instead, we got filmmakers whose reaction to death (and all the loopy metaphysics that govern it) is apathy. I had to be reminded of the fact that Leonetti helmed 2014's Annabelle, which wasn't a good movie but which, I noted at the time, featured a couple of nicely staged, genuinely spooky sequences. One in particular I still remember in vivid detail. So I'm just trying to be diplomatic when I say that a passable mediocrity like Annabelle couldn't come close to preparing me for the sheer unimaginative lifelessness of Wish Upon. And that goes beyond just its forgettable deaths.
Clare, the girl in question - who is given this life-changing/life-destroying opportunity quite unknowingly - is played by Joey King, who's apparently now at the bad teen horror flick portion of her career, a standard rite of passage. Clare's life has been peppered with tragedy and disappointment - during her childhood, her mother (Elisabeth Röhm) committed suicide, and since then she's lived alone with her father (Ryan Phillippe, borrowing the Face/Off puppet beard from Team America: World Police), a dumpster diver who makes ends meet by selling scrap metal. Her social life isn't much better - she has three close friends, but is mistreated by the popular class and is shy around boys. When dad brings home the fated music box, she accidentally uses it to make a wish, first by wishing for Darcie, the school's resident Mean Girl, to literally rot, and then later for more traditionally selfish desires. Money, romance, popularity, etc. There's a brief delay between the fulfillment of each wish and the death that follows it, so it takes her dumb ass several "mysterious" deaths before she figures out there's any kind of connection.
Deaths aside, Leonetti is even bored by the wish-fulfillment of his story. Clare's life changes - improves - rapidly, dramatically, glamorously. And yet the film itself never bothers to get into the spirit of her desires, the hopes and dreams she's suddenly allowed to make come true. The music box is of course meant to become a sort of vice - to sweep its owner up by all that it grants and all that it makes possible. But the film never bothers with a point of view - or anything subjective enough to illuminate the experience itself. The strategy, instead, is this: A wish comes true, then we get one banal scene that proves it came true. I wish for a massive inheritance? Shopping montage! I wish to be the most popular girl in school? One random party scene where everyone's nice to her! I wish for my dad to stop being embarrassing? A perfunctory scene where Ryan Phillippe is now a fun-loving saxophonist and everyone realizes he's handsome.
But the equilibrium of this world, and of her existence, never changes. Everything always looks and feels exactly the same. Leonetti has no way of expressing anything that's going on, emotionally, psychologically or otherwise. Clare's new life is, or should be, intoxicating, and yet the movie itself stubbornly refuses to go along for the ride.