The target teen audiences are unlikely to discern the myriad influences on John R. Leonetti’s horror film riffing on everything from the classic short story The Monkey’s Paw to the grisly death-happy Final Destination franchise. Starring Joey King as a 17-year-old who comes into possession of a mysterious Chinese box that grants its owner’s wishes, Wish Upon doesn’t break any new genre ground. But it should prove mildly diverting for viewers young enough not to care how utterly derivative it is.
King plays the central role of Clare, who as a 5-year-old comes upon the body of her mother (Elisabeth Rohm), who’s committed suicide. Cut to 12 years later, when Clare is living with her father Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), a once-successful musician who, much to his daughter’s embarrassment, now spends his days obsessively dumpster diving.
It seems harmless enough when Jonathan gifts his daughter with an antique music box emblazoned with Chinese lettering promising to grant its owner’s wishes. Clare, who’s routinely harassed at school by a fellow student (Josephine Langford), impulsively wishes that her tormentor would simply rot. Lo and behold, the blonde bully wakes up the next morning to discover that she’s fallen victim to a skin-wasting disease.
The wishes have unfortunate consequences, which Clare, having apparently never seen a horror film in her life, fails to recognize for the longest time. For every one of her fulfilled desires, the box enacts the toll of a horrific death inflicted on someone she knows, from her beloved dog to her wealthy uncle to her next-door neighbor (Sherilyn Fenn). The fatalities, which all look like accidents, are rendered in various clever ways, including that old standby, the kitchen garbage disposal (it makes you wonder why anyone installs one of these devices since, in horror films at least, no good ever comes of them).
Despite the mounting death toll, Clare enjoys the fruits of her illicit wishes. Suddenly awash in money, she treats her best friends (Shannon Purser, Sydney Park) to elaborate gifts. She becomes the most popular girl at school and attracts the romantic interest of her longtime crush (Mitchell Slaggert). It isn’t until her friend Ryan (Ki Hong Lee), who’s been personally affected by the box’s malevolence, convinces Clare that something is terribly wrong that she finally decides to get rid of it.
Director Leonetti (Annabelle) keeps the proceedings admirably fast paced — sometimes too much so, as some plot elements seem to be given short shrift with the brief running time. The tension is ratcheted up considerably during the frequent killing sequences, with viewers likely to shout at the screen to prevent characters from engaging in such risky behavior as crawling under a car elevated by a tire jack. Many horror fans, however, are likely to be put off by the genteel depictions mandated by the PG-13 rating.
Barbara Marshall’s screenplay captures the everyday angst and silliness of teen life effectively. But otherwise it’s strictly by-the-numbers, including such inevitable clichés as the family dog being the only living being who senses the box’s evil. Much of the film’s effectiveness can be credited to King, who makes Clare appealing even when acting selfishly. It’s also refreshing to see a teen character portrayed by an actual teenager as opposed to the usual twentysomething.