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Director: John R. Leonetti

Screenplay: Barbara Marshall

Starring: Joey KingRyan PhillippeKi Hong Lee

Review: David Stephens

When the larger film studios want to create a mainstream horror (with the distinct possibility of a franchise of course), they’re always looking for that hook to attract the attention of the multiplex public; nightmares, toys, boogeymen, the Grim Reaper himself, etc. They’ve all had a bite of the genre apple. But sometimes it pays to go back to the classic scary concepts. The idea of wishes rebounding on their user is nothing new. The “Wishmaster” films with its crafty Djinn villain are the most immediate examples that come to mind. But it’s been used in many movies, even the old British “Tales from the Crypt” from 1972 used it in a most horrible way in one of its stories (check it out; it’s a genuinely horrific yarn). Of course most of these can be traced back to myths and fairy tales like Aladdin, but for true horror connoisseurs it’s the tale of “The Monkey’s Paw” (written by W. W. Jacobs in 1902) that remains the benchmark. A mature couple tamper with fate and possibly (although it’s ambiguous) create a zombie out of their son. Classic gothic goodness. Now a new film takes that be-careful-what-you-wish-for trope and places it in the hands of the current young generation. “Wish Upon” (Ugh, that name, what were they thinking?) is directed by John R. Leonetti, who also made the first “Conjuring” spin-off “Annabelle”. A PG-13 (15 in the UK) rated horror, it’s just been released in US and British cinemas, so YGROY wishes to take a look at this new movie … and it actually happened.

It starts with a young Clare Shannon happily playing on her bike in the front yard of her home, as her mother Johanna (Elisabeth Rohm) takes some junk to the bin. But when the little girl goes inside she finds that Mommy’s hung herself. Suitably traumatised she leaves her bike in exactly the same place for many years until she becomes old enough to be played by Joey King (“The Conjuring”). Now saddled with her useless father Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe) who dumpster-dives for a “living”, she’s also bullied and belittled at school by the usual elite douches, which is made worse by the fact that she crushes on the boyfriend of one of them. Despite a couple of good friends, and the usual guy-who’s-perfect-for-her-but-she-barely-notices-him, she’s having a tough life and wants it to be better. Cue the fateful gift from her father, a Chinese music box that he finds from his bin-rummaging. It’s sealed but looks nice, and she manages to translate the words “Seven Wishes” on the carvings. Riled up from a fight with her rival (who she calls “smegma”, which will be more hilarious to us Brits than our Atlantic cousins), she unintentionally performs a mean-spirted wish whilst holding the box. It weirdly comes true, and she realises the potential of the device. Unfortunately, as well as being a shallow teenager with selfish urges, she doesn’t understand the prices that have to be paid until it may be too late…

Going beyond the fact that this film realistically satirises the emotional requirements of many teenagers these days, this is something of a disappointment. It feels like the “Wishmaster” and “Final Destination” franchises had a wild and crazy night and made a baby. Unfortunately they gave it away to a PG-rated middle-class family who brought it up to be less fun than their maternal parents. That’s our snarky way of saying that it emulates those movies but is hampered by the PG-13 rating, meaning that it’s way less inventively gory or gloriously mean-spirited as those films. (NB: An unrated version does apparently exist and may be released to home media).

It’s a shame because the best parts of “Wish Upon” definitely carry on the tradition of “Final Destination”. Due to the “rules” of the wishes, anybody who has a connection with Clare can be targeted for convoluted “accidents” that are orchestrated by fate (or a Chinese demon, take your pick). It’s slightly different to FD’s ethics, where the target was always pretty clear. For some of these incidents, it’s not immediately obvious who’s going to be six feet under. It makes for one splendid sequence where the focus splits between two people, who simultaneously avoid death until one of them finally bites the dust.

If there had been more clever scenes like that, the film would have made more of an impact. But the combination of wishes-that-turn-sour plus FD-inspired stalking should have been more fun and imaginative than it ultimately turns out to be. The demises are either mostly bloodless or off-screen, with the few gruesome moments being suggestive and barely glimpsed.

A lot of the narrative is dependent on your feelings towards Clare. King plays her well, but the plot drives her to become a dislikeable character once she is aware of her “power”. That is sort of the point, but it doesn’t exactly make the audience root for a happy outcome for her. One character even calls her out directly for making shallow puerile wishes instead of “world peace or something”, and as cliché as that is … she does have a point. A couple of wishes that she makes are so reprehensibly selfish (especially as she is vaguely aware of the repercussions) that it makes you want to reach into the screen and shake her by the shoulders. She might have a tragic backstory, but her treatment of friends and family is just the worst!

Ryan Phillippe and Sherilyn Fenn feel underused in the cast. Fenn is wasted (literally) and in a scene that will cause a few guffaws, poor old Phillippe is turned into that viral Sax-guy so that he’s perceived as being cool by Clare’s friends. There’s also a bafflingly brief flashback featuring Jerry O’Connell that is literally blink-and-miss. Out of everybody it’s probably Sydney Park (“The Walking Dead”) who comes off best as Claire’s BFF Meredith.

Admittedly there is some satisfaction seeing average teenage behaviour being called out, but the comparisons with drug addiction and even abusive relationships seem a little ham-fisted. It feels like a generic teen-horror in that respect and the demographics are obvious. There are plenty of high-school tropes and annoying Indie rock music blares out every single time the dialogue stops or there’s a montage (and there are a few of those). The ending is pretty predictable as well (anybody that’s seen a “bad-wish” film could probably guess it) and there’s a cynical attempt at setting up a sequel.

The performances are okay, the visuals are decent, and there are some good suspense sequences. But more than anything else it just makes you nostalgic for the “Final Destination” films, and this feels like a de-fanged version of one of those. To be fair, it will appeal more to younger teenage horror fans, or those cinema-goers who want to dip a curious toe in less extreme examples of the genre Time will tell what the response and box-office will be like (no critics thought that “Ouija” would be worthy of a prequel after all), but it’s not for us. If there is a follow-up it needs to be an R-rating from the start before we’ll get excited about it… “Wish Upon a R” … heh.

“Wish Upon” is occasionally fun, but mostly dumb. It shows moments of promise and has some decent suspense sequences (usually when it copies “Final Destination”). But otherwise it’s a middle-of-the-road teen horror that fails to excite or deliver most of the time. Morality lessons aside, it never gets any real impetus and you find it difficult to get behind its protagonist. We’re not really wishing for a sequel.
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