The desperation of horror movie makers to cash in on what is currently a very lucrative market is apparent in “Wish Upon,” a ghoulish supernatural thriller that melds “Aladdin” with “Final Destination.” Though it’s actually well-made from a purely technical standpoint, the grim efficiency of the execution can’t overcome the essential silliness of the premise.
The film begins with high school student Clare Shannon (Joey King) waking from a nightmare about her mother’s (Elizabeth Rohm) suicide years earlier. The death left her father (Ryan Philippe) an emotional wreck; he now subsists, apparently, by collecting trash from dumpsters along with his pal Carl (Kevin Hanchard), though how that pays for groceries is never explained. Perhaps their nice neighbor Mrs. Deluca (Sherilyn Fenn) helps out.
Clare’s campus life isn’t much better. Though she has two close friends, Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser), she’s bullied by mean girl Darcie (Josephine Langford). That changes when dad comes home with an odd find—what appears to be an octagonal metal box with a number-controlled lock and inscriptions in ancient Chinese characters. For some reason Clare makes a wish while holding it—regarding Darcie, of course—and while she sleeps the box opens and tinkles out a tune before closing again. The wish, as it happens, is granted, but at a price.
Ultimately Clare learns—via a conversation with Gina (Alice Lee), a cousin of likable classmate Ryan (Ki Hong Lee) who just happens to be expert in ancient Chinese, that what the girl possesses is a music box that promises to grant up to seven wishes. What will be revealed only later to her is that each wish demands a life in return, and Clare blithely continues using it to acquire her desires—a large inheritance, the boy she’s infatuated with (a handsome jock played by Mitchell Slaggert), and so on—even after she becomes aware of the consequences.
This set-up allows scripter Barbara Marshall to contrive, and director John R. Leonetti to stage, a succession of morbid death sequences, all of which are presented in luridly elaborate fashion even when they involve relatively unimaginative methods of demise like slipping in a bathtub, being trapped in a falling elevator, showing carelessness when using a garbage disposal, getting impaled on a piece of spiky artwork or crawling under a jacked-up car to retrieve a wayward bolt. Realizing that the pattern might be growing a bit predictable, Marshall and Leonetti toss in a curve late in the game by juxtaposing two of these people-in-imminent peril scenarios simultaneously, leaving us in doubt about which of them will result in a character’s death. They also try to introduce some suspense by having Clare debate what to do with the box once its malignant power has been revealed.
While that might be enough to satisfy those who enjoy watching flamboyantly protracted death sequences, however, one has to admit that the idea of some possessed item, whether it be a Ouija board or a mirror or a music box, causing mayhem and murder is becoming increasingly old hat, and the back story provided in this case comes across as particularly lame, depending as it does on one character’s suddenly spouting a whole sequence of “previous owner” stories and a thoroughly head-scratching attempt to circle back around to the nightmare prologue for closure. To its credit, the movie is true to its own screwy logic in the end, offering a nicely gauged finale that balances light and shade without succumbing to cliché. (On the other hand, the plot thread that has Clare’s dad recover his old self after the inheritance has come through and resuming a career as a saxophone player in a band is likely to cause snickers.)
The performances are better than usual in this genre, with King making a properly conflicted (and not always sympathetic) heroine, Philippe giving her dad a bit more heft than one might expect, and Ki Hong Lee projecting amiability as the guy she eventually recognizes as her true soul-mate. Purser, and particularly Park, are fine as her BFFs, too. Technically the picture is also better than average, with cinematographer Michael Galbraith and editor Peck Prior working with Leonetti to keep things moving along while allowing for those gruesome death sequences to have their intended effect. The score by tomandandy does its job as well.
Though well produced, however, “Wish Upon” is ultimately a pretty routine genre entry. It’s less obnoxious—and gory—than most other recent horror movies, but that’s a very low bar to clear.