How to know if a tattered contraption is the harbinger of horror? Sense the way it affects reel people on real people. Commendable then is the Chinese musical wish box at the center of veteran genre cinematographer John R. Leonetti’s latest film where, after each of the lead’s wish is realized, a swath of our tolerance is immolated.
His painful Wish Upon can be broken down into thus:
1. Good heavens, is that teenspeak? Both Clare Shannon and the always-delightfully plucky Joey King (“Independence Day: Resurgence”) who plays her deserve to live sunnier days, and that can begin with knowing the fundamental rule of clapping back: Keep it simple. Cutting down the bullying school socialite Darcie Chapman (Josephine Langford, “Pulse”) by calling her “smegma” and having to explain it to her isn’t exactly a win. Also, hanging with friends who utter phrases like “selfish bowl of bitch sauce” and “Sriracha hot” might be why the unpopular life is the only life to live. Appreciate the Asian representation for the latter, really, but there are less baffling descriptors for hunky people out there, even if said hunk in question is a dumpster diver by day, former slow-jazz saxophonist by night and Clare’s every day father (Ryan Phillippe, “The Lincoln Lawyer”).
2. The accident scenes. Emulating “Final Destination” isn’t a sin, but there is a case on hand if the manners of demise are inspired by that series’ more-comedic installments; those times when idiocy rather than supernatural gets the bloodletting credit. Darcie going rot is semi-cool since there is the lack of control, but other occasions either reject or abandon this notion; they insist on plotting characters’ collision course with death using logic lapses. All it takes is just the first half of Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair to save Clare’s neighbor, Mrs. Deluca (Sherilyn Fenn, “The Secrets of Emily Blair”), from the garbage disposer and open up more delightful possibilities a la Val Lewton. Possibly. And “possibly” only because . . .
3. Flawed filming process. Leonetti brings the intermittent lensing pleasures from “Annabelle” to this project; the highlights being glacial close-ups of the dangerous object and here-and-there semi-long takes. Other than that, there is an irksome choppiness that contributes zero value to the footage: Diminishing whatever tension the earlier frames have mined, complicating the geography, doing both simultaneously and burying (!) the macabre inherent in the plot. With a $12 million budget, it is just reasonable to wonder where the visual sense has gone, what has happened to the director’s understanding of creating tension. And how in the world did that bizarrely low-res helicopter footage pass as an establishing shot? Perhaps much of the dough is devoted to “making” whatever OS on Clare’s iPhone running ultra-smooth and that zombie Pokemon Go-like game which Clare’s best friend, Meredith (Sydney Park, “The Standoff”), is addicted to. Side note: Want to know the release date of the former.
4. Meredith has the sass and Barb, sorry, June (Shannon Purser, “Stranger Things” TV series) channels wisdom, but none of them have as much energy as the film’s pop songs. Now taking a page off “Suicide Squad,” the vocal tracks that tomandandy have picked couldn’t be more on the nose, narratively and thematically. “You give it all then you’ll take it back,” the singer lilts as Clare nudges Paul (Mitchell Slaggert, “Moss”), whom in Meredith’s words is the school’s “F Boy,” with a veiled elation in knowing her second wish is fulfilled. “Now That’s What I Called Clare’s Life!” — but which edition is being heard here?
5. Have backstory, will expand. Or not. While writer Barbara Marshall deserves praise for constructing rather detailed origins of the music box, it seems the effort is for naught when they are no longer mentioned afterward. On purpose — for some half-baked franchise fantasy. From what Clare’s actual crush Ryan (Ki Hong Lee, “The Maze Runner”) and his cousin Gina (Alice Lee, “Switched at Birth” TV series) found — the latter also has to contact an off-screen friend to complete the information — there is an eerier, more ancient force at work that begs to be present, or at least teased. Instead, the element chosen to elevate Wish Upon is the domestic disconnection, which feels shoehorned and — aside from King — has no intriguing players. Then again, without it, “Sriracha hot” would have never had its shining moment.
6. Really wish the box is right here to, well, wish the film from continuing to embarrass itself. Oh, hello, Jerry O’Connell, being dramatic in a cameo that is literally short-lived and jarringly placed.
7. “You dig on multiverses?” Ryan casually asks Clare when he recalls the time she nicknamed him “McFart” (yup). Considering this is a hip bunch of youngsters, look at what happened to “Transformers” or “The Mummy.” Still, just as the existence of alternate realities suggest that this duo could have been lovers, perhaps in another world Wish Upon is a bona fide fright show. Either legitimately or pulpy, but not dumpster-worthy like its current state.
However, a second film is still possible since the producers spent just in the low double-digits to have this made. And that, ladies and gentlemen, would be inflicting real evil on cinema and reality.