There's a case to be made that horror fans have become spoiled over the last few years. Following a series of phenomenal entries in a genre that had otherwise fallen into the same old pattern of gratuitous gore and tensionless violence, Hollywood has managed to pump out a string of expertly crafted art house thrillers that have gone on to really resonate with critics and audiences, alike. Sadly, however, they cannot all be winners. With that in mind, John Leonetti's Wish Upon is a watered down and poorly executed retread of a sadly familiar horror story, and it delivers all of the anguish of a run of the mill horror tale without any of the fun.
From the get-go, Wish Upon will instantly feel familiar to die-hard fans of the horror genre. The film centers on a teenage girl named Clare (Joey King) who has spent the majority of her life coping with the fallout of her mother's suicide. One day, in an attempt to brighten her mood, her hoarder father (Ryan Phillippe) gives her a Chinese wish box discovered during an afternoon of dumpster diving. Initially treating it as little more than a game, Clare soon finds out that her wishes actually come true when she whispers them into the box -- but each one comes with a bloody price for those she loves. What follows is a race against time and Clare's own growing instability to unlock the mysteries of the box before anyone else gets hurt.
If that sounds like a relatively familiar premise, that's because we have seen this movie countless times before. Wish Upon takes seemingly no amount of pride in originality, and almost every single plot thread or set piece feels cribbed from The Conjuring, Final Destination, or even Annabelle -- which makes sense, as John Leonetti similarly directed the first Annabelle film. In this regard, Wish Upon feels more like a greatest hits compilation than an original work of art, except all of the "hits" are covers performed by Nickelback.
That may sound harsh, but I'm afraid it's also accurate. Wish Upon makes little to no attempt to innovate in its conception of scares, and it predominately relies on frights that even the most superficial horror fan will see coming from a mile away. A dog who figures things out before the humans? Check. A garbage disposal sequence? Check. Characters crowded around a computer to research their mysterious artifact? Oh, you bet this film has one of those scenes as well.
I would argue that there's one other significant factor that sucks the fear and tension out of Wish Upon's story: its PG-13 label. There's no question that recent horror films like Lights Out have managed to deliver solid thrills within the more restrictive PG-13 rating, but Wish Upon feels so chopped up and cobbled together in an attempt to edit around the gore that it cannot sustain any tension or dread. As a result, we get none of the slow-burn fear that a better horror film would deliver, but we also get none of the guilty-pleasure gore of a self-aware torture porn flick. It's lose-lose for audiences.
It really is a shame that Wish Upon seems so uninterested in trying anything remotely new with the horror genre, because it actually features a better than average ensemble of young actors. Between Joey King, The Maze Runner's Ki Hong Lee and Stranger Things' Shannon Purser, the acting pedigree for the film's young protagonists is surprisingly high. Even Ryan Phillippe does the best with the relatively limited material that the film affords him. The issue ultimately stems from the fact that the universe established by the movie's script is razor thin, and the actors are saddled with some seriously appalling dialogue (the moment that clinched it for me was a scene in which Purser's character refers to Phillippe as "hot sauce"). There are a few standout moments (King knocks it out of the park in one particular long take towards the end of the film), but the cast remains tragically shortchanged for the bulk of Wish Upon's hollow screenplay.
On that note, one of the most substantial issues to plague Wish Upon from beginning to end is the fact that the film suffers from an insane identity crisis. It cannot tell if it wants to be a satirical black comedy or a straight-faced horror romp, and it eventually finds itself lost in purgatory between those two ideas. In one scene John Leonetti will attempt to establish a grim and foreboding (almost gothic) atmosphere, but the very next scene will see blare a Top 40 dance as the film pokes fun at contemporary teen tropes and clichés like Instagram and Pokemon Go. Both of these ideas could've actually led to a kind of cool movie, but Wish Upon's inability to really figure out what it wants to be bogs it down and keeps it from carving out any real sense of identity for itself.
In the end, Wish Upon is neither scary, nor stylish, and it squanders a promising young cast on a dull and soulless story. Considering the fact that this is a year that has seen films like Get Out and It Comes At Night make enormous waves and redefine silver screen horror, Wish Upon feels like a huge step backward for the genre as a whole.