July is typically when the summer movie season starts to slow down a bit, though this year is a rare exception — next week alone we’re getting Dunkirk, Girls Trip, and Valerian — and normally small-budget horror flicks like Wish Upon, releasing today (July 14), hit theaters in August, when we’ve fully entered into the summer doldrums.
They’re well-placed there for a few good reasons: Desperation to get out of the heat means people will pay to see any garbage the studios want to throw up on the screen, and it’s also primo end-of-summer date season, when the impending school year brings with it a sense of melancholy and an urge to make things solid between burgeoning couples. They need to be PG-13 to pull in that audience, and they need to be the right mixture of boring and scary to require you to occasionally look at the screen in between make-out sessions. The problem, then, with a movie like Wish Upon is that it’s so bad it’s funny, and that it’s compellingly made enough (by John R. Leonetti, director of such works as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Butterfly Effect 2) to remain perpetually watchable. But for all of us assholes out there who like laughing at bad movies, Wish Upon is a gift from God himself, a mid-summer helping of schlock cinema worthy of a ticket purchase.
Wish Upon tells the story of Claire (Joey King), who is a coked-up executive’s idea of what a bullied high schooler looks like, as she’s both hyper-witty and well put-together from the start of the film and has two pretty normal friends — Barb from Stranger Things (Barb from Stranger Things), and the Pokemon Go-ripoff obsessed Meredith (Sydney Park). She lives with her father (Ryan Phillippe, whose boyish looks and scruffy visage here make it look like he should be selling her pot instead of trying to teach her life lessons), a junk scavenger who perpetually embarrasses his daughter by digging through the dumpsters outside of her school. They’re both sort of still living with the shock that changed their lives forever 12 years before the start of the film, when Claire discovered her mother’s lifeless body swinging from the rafters of their attic, and she’s been living with a sort of emptiness since then. That’s a little more poetic than the movie would put it, but hey, I’m trying my best here. One day, her father discovers a weird box in the garbage outside of a destroyed mansion, and gives it to Claire. Sure enough, it’s a magical Chinese wish-pot, and it’ll grant Claire seven wishes in exchange for… oh, the lives of her friends and family and eventually hers. So, naturally, she wishes death upon her enemies and riches for herself over the course of this breezy ’90 minutes, and bad shit happens to people as a consequence.
There’s just so much odd stuff in this film — the plot’s structured in a way that immediately establishes the culpability of its protagonist in each of the deaths that occur over the runtime, and it makes Claire super difficult to root for, and the wild contorted logic that defines this film is easily undermined by a few jokes. Why not wish for unlimited wishes? It’s not expressly forbidden on the box, which has ancient Chinese script on it explaining the ends and outs of how the curse works. Anyways, if you’re not laughing meanly by the time the 10-minute mark hits, you’re probably doing this wrong. From the corny Pokemon Go riffs and jokes to another character’s slightly discomfiting obsession with wontons (and an extended Jerry O’Connell cameo!), there’s enough awkwardly posited one-liners to sustain your interest. Lee’s forced to say the line “Yo, you dig on wormholes?” about two or three different times, each sounding more forced and stiff than the last, and King has her moments as well; her descent into wish-box addiction at the end of the film comes from out of nowhere and is overacted in the best of ways. Yet the film’s most awkward deliveries and most satisfying chuckles come from Paul (Mitchell Staggart), a jock who has a massive Instagram following whom Claire manipulates via magic box into obsessively loving her (I bet you can guess how this goes). He’s given several lines that brought the house down at my screening, including a “haters gonna hate” so out of place and weird it’s like they brought Tommy Wiseau in to do rewrites on the screenplay.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if I’ve had a better laugh in a movie this year than the one I had when, after wishing that her father would just be cool and normal, Claire and her friends watch her dad become a Sax God, playing smooth jazz on an alto saxophone with a band he just sort of pulls out of the ether. The sax stuff is a recurring bit in the movie that really isn’t meant to be taken as a joke — it’s Philippe expressing his happiness about his new situation and his confidence– and it’s funny the first time, but becomes hysterical by the time he’s smoldering over smooth-jazz honks. Barb from Stranger Things tells the other girls that Claire’s dad is Hot AF, and Leonetti cuts back to Philippe murdering the sax, and then back to the girls, where he does a slow zoom on Barb from Stranger Things’ eye-fucking her best friend’s dad. If this sounds like something that’s up your alley, you should a) probably buy a ticket to see this movie this weekend (after you’ve seen all the good stuff that’s out in theaters right now) and b) get at me so we can be best friends.
You probably have noticed that I haven’t said anything about the kills or the thrills that are supposedly found within this film, and that’s because there aren’t any worth writing about. They’re all empty and derivative of the “Fate’s Gonna Git You Sucka” genre that we saw perfected with the hard-R Final Destination franchise and is occasionally revisited nowadays to make a quick buck for the PG-13 audience. There’s also little of the irony that typically endows these kills with a sense of bizarre justice — it’s just cruel and stupid things happening to people who don’t really deserve it — which is why I’m a bit hesitant to compare it to “The Monkey’s Paw” and other similar stories. I mean, sure, garbage disposals make me uncomfortable too, but they’re really not that scary! I guess it’s cool that you’ve got Sherilyn Fenn in this, but she doesn’t even use a garbage disposal until she gets killed! Necrotizing fasciitis is horrible, but realistic zombie makeup has kind of robbed its on-screen power as something truly terrifying; we see more interesting rot on AMC every Sunday night. And the box itself, despite the filmmaker’s best efforts, is simply a tacky and slightly racist downgrade from the weird hand of fate that hunts people in other better films. Sure, they try to excuse it through a number of means, and I think Lee has the charm and potential to pull off bigger and better work, but the exploitation of other cultures’ legends and tales for the benefit of our horror still has a miserable ring to it. We honestly should know a bit better at this point, and Leonetti’s never able to either accept the true scummy nature of his film’s premise, and as such he does anything thematically interesting with it.
Yet, there are occasional glimpses of something better that makes you wonder what could have been lost in the translation from script to screen. There are moments in Barbara Marshall’s screenplay when you can start to see a slightly different movie emerge from underneath the slick surface of this picture — one that takes the tone and humor from An American Werewolf in London and packages it in a Mean Girls aesthetic — and the movie becomes genuinely, intentionally funny, and that’s when Wish Upon grabs your attention, however briefly. There’s a great scene in the middle of the film where Claire’s friends confront her about the box, and it’s lying on the bed, chained up with a lock holding it from opening and killing folks, and her friends just lay into her for not wishing for nice stuff to happen to them. It’s petty and selfish in a way that feels novel and refreshing, and it’s quite funny, until it goes back to being blase and stupid. It’s a shame that it isn’t that film, but for those looking for minor and spiteful entertainment this weekend that they can crack a few brews over and laugh at, this is about as good of an option as you’ll find.
‘Wish Upon’ photo courtesy of Steve Wilkie/Broad Green Pictures. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.