Film Review – Wish Upon
The horror genre has occasionally had those instances of what I would call “Scary Minority Curses.” This involves a protagonist, usually a white person, getting stuck with a curse revolving around a certain race or culture. Whether its ghosts on a forbidden Native American burial ground or an ancient African demon falling upon our innocent heroes, movies have had a long track record of equating evil forces with various cultures. It falls back on that old idea of being afraid of things we don’t know or care to understand.
Of course, not every horror flick that deals with this theme is flat out racist. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Gremlins (1984) deserves criticism for its depiction of Asian antique stores as a breeding ground for evil pets. But there are times where I sit with a horror movie and wonder why its creators went with such a tired and cheap means of generating dread. Case in point: Wish Upon (2017). In it, a high school girl named Clare (Joey King) stumbles on an old Chinese wish box, given to her by her father (Ryan Philippe). Soon enough, Clare realizes that the box is real, granting her seven wishes that she can use to her heart’s content.
Does Clare wish for world peace and happiness? Of course not. As soon as she realizes the power of her gift, Clare uses her first few wishes on money, extravagant clothes and jewelry, and a fancy mansion to live in. She even goes so far as to wish the girl bullying her at school (Josephine Langford) to physically rot. For a main character that we’re supposed to be rooting for, Clare does some really despicable things. If we look at her in a different light, she could very well be the “bully” of this story. She mocks others with her friends (Sydney Park, Shannon Purser), and she’s ashamed of her father being a hoarder, digging through the trash bin across from her school.
Sure, I suppose the writer (Barbara Marshall) and director (John R. Leonetti) set Clare up this way so that she can see the error of her ways once things start going bad. There’s a bit involving Clare’s mother that’s meant to be the cause of her emotional problems, but that’s difficult to process when Clare spends most of the time being self-centered. At a certain point I started to root for her to kick the bucket. With the help of her classmate Ryan (Ki Hong Lee), Clare discovers that her wish box comes with a price – a fatal one. This brings up perhaps the one good idea of Wish Upon: if you were given the opportunity to have anything you wanted, but in return something bad happens to other people (in this case: death), would you take it? It’s a concept worth exploring, but this film isn’t interesting in delving into philosophy. Rather, it’s invested in simply killing many of its characters.
The death scenes are mundane and uncreative. There’s a Final Destination feel to how many of these unfold. Characters move around fully unaware of their surroundings, and we the audience have to sit and wait for them to finally experience the consequences of their stupidity. I was never a big fan of the Final Destination series, because many of the scare scenes were the result of characters just being dumb and clumsy. The same can be said here. How many times have we seen someone stick their hand down a kitchen sink to grab something, knowing full well that the blades of the garbage disposal are right there waiting? How many times have seen someone step into a bathtub, forgetting that it could potentially be slippery? These kills are a dime a dozen in horror, so seeing them here doesn’t put us on the edge of our seats with tension. Imagine all the movie lives that could have been saved if people just looked both ways before crossing the street.
Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009) explored a similar set up in a much more entertaining way. Where Drag Me to Hell moved with energy and color and had a self-deprecating sense of humor, Wish Upon takes itself way too seriously, flooding the screen with muted colors and a drab sense of grimness. Everything is dark and brooding, even in broad daylight. In fact, the tone is so dour that it causes us to laugh ironically. Death scenes that are supposed to be shocking come off silly at best. At its worst, it plays things entirely down the middle. In style or theme, it never pushes the envelope to stand out from other movies like it, and yet it’s not cheesy enough to invite repeated viewings. Heck, it soft-pedals the material so that I couldn’t even get offended by the racial aspects of its premise.
Wish Upon is pure empty space, a nothing experience that tries to take the easy path to its scares. Its purpose is to remind you that there are movies out there that do the same thing, but do it much better.