Feeling every bit rushed into theaters to capitalize on the presence of both Twin Peaks’s Sherilyn Fenn and Stranger Things’s meme-machine Shannon Purser (a.k.a. Barb), John R. Leonetti’s Wish Upon actually feels of a piece with the latter show’s universe. In that Netflix Gen-X crowd-pleaser, the world humankind inhabits is mirrored by an alternate plane of existence: the “upside down.” And the longer Wish Upon labors on with its thin premise, the more it seems like the grim, upside-down version of genuinely inspired genre exercises, most specifically Drag Me to Hell and the Final Destination series.
Clare Shannon (Joey King) is a high school outcast who suffers the memory of her mother, who committed suicide when Clare was a preschooler, and really suffers the daily reality of her dumpster-diver father Jonathan (Ryan Phillipe, remaining fully shirted throughout). Frequently targeted by a generic pack of mean girls—and one mean boy, because 2017—and woefully smitten with the school’s 100 percent prime Instahunk (Mitchell Slaggert), Clare is in a perpetual post-pubescent rut. But then her dad brings her an ancient Chinese puzzle box he found in a trash can, and neither he nor Clare notice that the damned thing is shaped like a stop sign. Clare blithely wishes ill upon her chief tormentor and, lo and behold, said bully comes down with a nasty case of Eli Roth-style cabin fever. Oh, and then Clare’s dog turns up dead.
Barbara Marshall’s screenplay for Wish Upon is yet another riff on the “monkey’s paw” archetype, though without any poetic justice behind any of the ill-begotten wishes and their grim consequences. Quite the opposite. As frustratingly self-interested as the film’s heroine is throughout, you can’t exactly lay blame at her feet for not noticing, until it’s too late, that her wishes are all being paid for in other people’s blood. That’s because almost none of the deaths have any thematic connection to Clare’s wishes, almost all of which boil down to reaching higher social ground among her peers. How could she notice the price being paid when it’s all randomly tangential?
Contrast that to the deliriously unfair Drag Me to Hell, in which Alison Lohman’s doomed heroine is punished for one minor transgression in ludicrously outsized fashion, in a ludicrous parody of the EC-style “just desserts” paradigm. Inversely, Wish Upon repeatedly rewards its venal protagonist while punishing virtually everyone else. Perhaps a filmmaker with Sam Raimi’s flair for broad satire could mine this premise for hidden ironies, but Leonetti falls back on increasingly elaborate PG-13 death sequences, jettisoning any spiritual associations in favor of shallow “which of these two supporting characters is going to bite it?” cross-cutting. With no moral weight in any of Clare’s actions, the only wish that ends up satisfyingly granted is, in the final and utterly predictable tableau, the audience’s.