When Clare Shannon (Joey King) puts her hands on a cursed magic object and wishes that her class crush would fall madly in love with her, she doesn’t count on being held to the madly part. But that’s the thing with cursed magic objects: They’ll get you on the semantics. In Wish Upon, an almost endearingly dreadful new supernatural fright flick, the wishes—seven of them total, two more than your typical monkey’s paw—come courtesy of an ornate, octagonal music box, like something out of a curiosities shop run by Guillermo Del Toro. Being able to read the ancient Chinese writing scribbled around the edges wouldn’t spare Clare of cruelly ironic comeuppance; that her wishes might be misinterpreted by the literal-minded forces granting them is standard wish protocol, too obvious to even stick in the fine print. But at least she’d know that every request fulfilled costs one life. “When the music ends… something happens,” her translator unhelpfully translates, unable to make out the something part. Clare compensates her with wontons, so maybe you get what you pay for.
As a young girl, Clare witnessed her mother commit suicide; her bike lays in the exact spot where she left it that day, symbolically unmoved for years, apparently even in the winter or to mow the lawn. Her father (Ryan Phillippe) was a musician, but now spends his days digging through dumpsters, though it’s unclear from the strange junk he recovers whether that’s out of bone-broke necessity or to feed a hoarding habit. (Don’t look for answers from Phillippe, who just seems vaguely depressed that he’s now old enough to play the parent instead of the hothead hunk in bad horror movies.) We get it when Clare starts using the wish box, pulled from the trash outside an abandoned manor, to tweak her imperfect life—punishing the mean girl who torments her, rocketing herself to the top of the high school pecking order, and transforming her embarrassing sax-playing dad into a really suave sax-playing dad. It’s less understandable, of course, when she belatedly figures out that every request drops a body, but keeps going back to the veritable wishing well anyway.
The deaths all look like freak accidents, people Clare knows slipping and cracking their skull or impaling themselves. If you’ve ever wondered how a Final Destination movie would play if its mousetrap kill scenes had to adhere to a PG-13 rating, wonder no longer. Director John R. Leonetti has an inconsistent talent for running a rake over the audience’s nerves. Topping the sewing machine scene from his cheaply effective evil-doll potboiler Annabelle, the best moment here wrings cruelly prolonged suspense from the digit-mangling potential of a garbage disposal. But most of Wish Upon is too terminally silly (and predictable) to elicit more than derisive chuckles. Also, how is it that Leonetti, who shot the genuinely gorgeous The Conjuring, only seems to sit at the helm of movies that look flatly hideous in their lighting? Did a genie realize his dream to direct, but take his eyesight as penance?
The real shame is that Joey King got yanked into this cut-rate crap. For years, the adolescent starlet has brought an enthusiastic charisma to every role: landing the kid-sidekick shtick of White House Down, shrinking with credible terror in The Conjuring, injecting real pathos into a much sappier movie with “wish” in the title. King throws herself into the high school melodrama of Wish Upon, but the movie buries her range—from flustered infatuation to horror-flick panic—under a mountain of unbelievable behavior and tin-eared dialogue. (This is one of those teen movies where the teens talk and behave like some marketing exec’s conception of hip youth, calling people “hotsauce” and “bitchsauce,” and playing a chintzy Pokémon Go knockoff that tells you exactly when the project was conceived.) Wish Upon piles so many poor decisions on poor Clare, right up to a dunderheaded final wish, that it ends up playing like a cautionary tale about not trusting teenagers with anything: not the car, not the credit card, and certainly not some unholy ancient device designed to make a mockery of our deepest human desires. That’s condescending, but is it scary? They wish.