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'Wish Upon' is a failed scare machine about someone who's evil or stupid

Joey King plays a teen who keeps making wishes even after they kill everyone she knows.
Wish Upon
Joey King shouldn't have dabbled with the supernatural in "Wish Upon." Credit: Steve Wilkie, Broad Green Pictures

‘Wish Upon’
Director: John R. Leonetti
Stars: Joey King, Ryan Phillippe
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

The best horror is as much about scares as it is about subtext. No one, not even its fans, expects much from the genre, and the most resourceful filmmakers use disreputability as an excuse to sneak in subversive, even effed-up ideas. In that sense, “Wish Upon” is as radically socialist as the new Netflix movie “Okja.” It’s the spooky story of a poor white teenager (Joey King) who finally finds privilege and success, but only when it’s built upon the deaths of innocents (and by co-opting Asian customs). It’s a savage takedown of the capitalist urge, which forces all of us to ignore the misery upon which our happiness rests — or it would be if its filmmakers had even noticed that.

Instead, “Wish Upon” is a super dopey failed scare machine. King plays Clare, a nobody high schooler bullied by classist richies, who she wishes would turn from her oppressors into her besties. Her life takes a turn for the “Gremlins”: She’s gifted with an old, ornate, “oriental” music box that can allegedly grant seven wishes. Her prayers are perhaps understandably very high school: punish a mean girl, inherit wealth, make the school’s premium rent-a-hunk (Mitchell Slaggert) fall madly in love with her, etc. (The best: turn her widowed dad, played by Ryan Phillippe, from a dumpster diver into a sax player in a bad smooth jazz outfit.) What Clare’s far, far too slow to realize is that the price of each wish is the death of a loved one.

Ignoring the dearth of wit in the wishes or the murders — no cruelly ironic “Monkey’s Paw”-style twists here, while the supernatural murders play like “Final Destination” on downers — “Wish Upon” is too sloppily written and directed to earn anything but dumb-horror-movie yuks. (With the “Conjuring” spinoff “Annabelle,” director John R. Leonetti showed some flair for slow dollies into scary dolls, but is entirely lost at sea when the only creepy thing is a box.) It’s even bad at kowtowing to Chinese audiences, which is apparently now a thing with low-rent horror films, too. Clare conveniently takes Mandarin in high school — or as characters of course call it, “Chinese.”

This choppy affair does get some energy from aging child star King. She’s far too perky-emo for a lowly horror number, which winds up giving it a strange and welcome texture. But the script is incoherent about whether Clare’s is too stupid or too evil to realize she’s racking up a body count as her life improves. She doesn’t even learn the right lesson by the film’s punchline of an ending, which does make it memorable, in a backhanded-compliment way: No one involved realized “Wish Upon” is a legitimately amoral film. Though Occam’s Razor suggests it’s simply dumb.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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