I have to admit that Wish Upon totally surprised me, as I’m probably not the targeted demographic for the film (read: I’m old). But I have to admit, when you give me a story with engaging characters, real stakes, some Final Destination-esque kill setups, and a willingness by director John R. Leonetti to push his PG-13 rating to the very limits, I’m pretty much game for anything. That being said, this fantasy horror film probably won’t do much for genre fans looking for more adult-oriented storytelling, but for me, Wish Upon felt right at home amongst many ’90s movies of the same ilk, such as The Faculty, The Craft, Disturbing Behavior, or even I Know What You Did Last Summer, and I had a complete blast with what Leonetti cooks up in his latest directorial effort.
Wish Upon begins with a woman stashing a mysterious package into the garbage can outside her home, and then just mere moments later, she takes her own life, as her adorable daughter Clare stumbles upon her mother’s corpse hanging from the rafters in the attic. Flash forward to over a decade later, and the youngster we initially met is all grown up (in the form of actress Joey King) and dealing with all the usual teenager problems: she’s bullied and humiliated by the rich kids at her school, her well-meaning dad, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), constantly embarrasses her (especially when his junk retrieval job has him dumpster diving right in front of her high school), and the boy she has a crush on doesn’t even know she exists.
Clare has her own squad of gal pals to get her through the tough times—Meredith (Sydney Park, who plays Cyndie on The Walking Dead) and June (Shannon Purser from Stranger Things)—but the troubled teen finds the perfect portal for her angst in the form of a music box that has the ability to grant her seven wishes. At first, Clare is excited by the results of her interactions with the magical contraption, but soon, she realizes that her solicitations come with a consequence—a blood sacrifice in which someone she knows pays the price—and it’s up to her to break her obsession with the box before she loses everyone she loves in her pursuit of “the perfect life.”
Something of a cautionary tale, Wish Upon works as well as it does for various reasons. Writer Barbara Marshall infuses her script with a lot of heart, horror, and even humor, which makes for an entertaining mix, and I think Leonetti does a great job finding the balance between the various tones. Throughout the film, there are numerous death scenes, and while most of them play out (as mentioned) akin to what we used to see in the Final Destination movies, there are a few that end up playing out a bit more viscerally, just because they’re characters we’ve grown to enjoy throughout Wish Upon’s 90-minute running time.
As far as the cast goes, Leonetti has assembled a fantastic assortment of actors for his teen-driven horror fantasy, with King being front and center. They worked together back on The Conjuring (which Leonetti lensed for James Wan), and that prior relationship pays off because the director allows King to shine in a role that’s both complicated and compelling. Through Clare’s various wishes, we see various incarnations of our Wish Upon protagonist, and even when her character is making morally questionable decisions, you can’t help but still empathize with her because in one way or another, we’ve all been in a situation where things spiral out of control (even if we may not have an enchanted box at the center of it all).
The rest of the ensemble in Wish Upon are all outstanding as well, and I’m not sure what part I enjoyed most: King’s chemistry with her gals pals, watching Clare’s relationship with her dad come full circle (and Phillippe’s involvement here is a totally fun nod to some of the films in his early career), or that Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn makes an appearance in this as Clare’s doting neighbor.
While I realize that there’s probably not much I can say that would persuade hardened horror fans who prefer their genre stories a little more blood-soaked and R-rated, those of you with more of an open mind might find Wish Upon to be an enjoyable throwback to ’90s teen-centric horror like I did. I admit I’m an easy mark for movies like this, but with a solid script, an engaging cast, and a director who knows how to have fun with modern horror conventions, Wish Upon delivered much more than my skeptical genre-loving heart could have even hoped for going in.
Oh, and the film’s final moments are a total gut punch I definitely did not see coming, and I applaud Leonetti for doing something as ballsy as he does with Wish Upon’s finale.
Movie Score: 3.5/5