Monday, July 24, 2017

On the Big Screen :: Implied Horror and Wishing For Things that Weren't in John Leonetti's Wish Upon (2017)

Our film opens in a rundown neighborhood, with a twitchy mom seeing her young daughter off on her training-wheeled bike; destination, to check on a nest of baby birds up the street. Seems simple but between the out of kilter soundtrack and Mom’s mournful stare as she carefully secrets something in the trash, we’re clued-in that something is amiss as danger draws near for one or both. But which one? Well, we get our answer quick as the daughter makes it back to the house in one piece -- just in time to see her mother commit suicide by hanging herself in the attic.

Jump ahead about ten years and the daughter, Clare (King), is now a senior in high school. A social outcast except for her two bestest buds, Meredith and June (Park, Purser), a day in the life for Clare is nothing but heaps of embarrassment (-- her deadbeat father is a pathological dumpster diving hoarder), and abusive hazing (-- the popular sect pick on her constantly and spread the mortifying results on social media). But things start to change for Clare when her father unearths an old Chinese wish box of some antiquity and then passes it off as a birthday present for his daughter. Able to translate some of the writing carved into it, which promises to grant seven wishes, Clare, unfortunately, is unable to decipher the fine print as her wishes start coming true, which warns these kinds of bargains with the unknown always come at a deadly price...

John Leonetti served as the cinematographer for James Wan’s fright franchises du jour, Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), before branching out and slipping into the director’s chair for the spin-off, Annabelle (2014), a film which wasn’t that terrible, I thought, and found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I genuinely liked it despite the rock stupid premise (-- I mean, who the hell in their right mind would buy a doll which looked like THAT?!); and then followed that up with the Charles Manson inspired Wolves at the Door (2016), which was his take on the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders,

Here, his efforts for Wish Upon (2017) produced a film I also didn’t hate -- but I didn’t really like it all that much because it failed to engage me on almost every level -- well, at least until the drive home, where there was a dry-fart of rumination. (More on this in a sec.) And while the overall plot is full of holes and leaking logic, I think the biggest mistake the film makes is not making Clare sympathetic enough. Joey King, another Wan veteran, does her best but Barbara Marshall’s script does her no favors as all Clare gets in terms of character development is that she’s lost her mom, her dad’s a hopeless yutz, she likes her dog (-- until it dies to grant her first wish and is summarily forgotten), she has the soul of a repressed artist, and she is the victim of bullying -- all told in the broadest of strokes. That’s it.

This is then compounded by the fact her wishes are totally self-serving as she conjures up some money, popularity, a cute boyfriend, and revenge on the bitchy classmate (Langford) who torments her the most. And what’s worse, even after Clare finds out there is a "blood price" to be paid for each wish, meaning someone close to her will die to make the box work, like some meth-head looking for her next fix, the girl will not give up her new found social and financial high and keeps on wishing, which only reinforces how big of a petulant brat she’s been all along.

The film is also not helped out by it’s PG-13 rating at all. And while I freely admit Wish Upon was essentially Final Destination (2000) and Wishmaster (1997) by way of W.W. Jacobs with the serial numbers filed off, the film lacks any kind of punch for the elaborate, Rube-Goldbergian nature of the “accidental” deaths they set-up, meaning no gruesome payoffs and a lot of jarring edits to keep things clean and sanitized enough for the tweeners, leaving us with the asinine plot and terrible characters and nothing else to helps us endure. Things got so turgid and somnolent I even lost track of the wish-to-kill ratio and who died for which wish.

I don’t know. Maybe if Clare’s wishes had started backfiring on her, hinted at by the new enthralled beau (Slaggert), who is so obsessed with her he essentially becomes an ersatz stalker who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “No.” And when she grows tired of him and tries to “throw him back” he attempts suicide over this rejection. That kinda twist might’ve proved interesting if it had been expounded upon further. But instead the box just up and disappears, triggering more of that fine print, translated by Ryan (Lee), a friendly classmate with Chinese heritage, who reveals if you dump or lose the box before you make all seven wishes, all spent wishes will be undone. And so, Clare winds up back at square one, but seems content enough as she wasn’t really happy with all the ill-gotten stuff, either, truth told, but this, too, isn’t properly addressed. (Sensing a pattern here). At least she was content until finding out June stole the box from her; not to make her own wishes, but as an act of self-preservation so her selfish ass of a best friend would stop killing those around her -- like their friend Meredith, who was squashed to death in a runaway elevator.

And speaking of friend June, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am 100% Team Barb when it comes to Stranger Things (2016). And if you do not understand the Cult of Barb on your own, sorry, I cannot help you. You either get it, or you don’t. Anyhoo, it was kind of laughable how Leonetti framed certain shots and how several set-ups linger on Shannon Purser as if to say "Look! Lookie! Look! Look! Barb from Stranger Things is in our moooooovie." In fact, during one round of wishes, when Clare wants her dad (Phillippe) to get his crap together and be cool, he starts blowing hot jazz on the sax as the girls listen attentively, and then one of those lingering pans stops dead on June, then cuts to the dad, implying things are about to get weird between them. Again, that might’ve been an interesting twist on another backfiring wish if -- and stress on the “if” -- this was what the filmmaker had intended, which, of course, it was not.

As is, then, Wish Upon is a fairly dreadful movie for myriad reasons; and yet, it is also one of those horror films that gets infinitesimally better after you’ve left the theater and you start thinking about the ramifications of certain things they set-up but left to die on the vine so they could focus on something far less interesting. Like how when Clare almost kills June to get her two final wishes, she first asks to have her mom back. But during this otherwise cheery interlude (-- until her father is killed to pay the piper), we find out the mystery object mother Shannon (Röhm) was placing in the trash way back at the beginning of the movie was most likely the very same wish box, leaving the audience to extrapolate from the tales of woe and mass murder by the others who flagrantly possessed the wish box over the years, that her wishes also must’ve went awry. And so awry they did go, mommy-dearest wished for a do-over, but then chose to sacrifice herself to the demon in the box so it wouldn’t take her daughter as payment.

Thus and so, that whole incident with Shannon controlling the box was ret-conned out of existence, explaining why she wasn’t part of Ryan’s investigative recap. (But Jerry O’Connell was. Weird, I know. Long story.) And so, that is not the giant plot-hole some would have you believe it to be. How the box then got to where her dad found it, in the trash of a former victim, who died after making a seventh wish when the demon came for his due, well, you got me there -- and at this point, I’m getting tired of shoring up this scuttled script, because this also brings into question what are real memories and false memories of Clare’s past. 

Of course, the film doesn’t address any of this either and it’s left to the audience to interpret for themselves as the ultimate climax comes full circle. Seems Clare thinks she knows how to beat the cursed box at its own game by spending her last request wishing her father had never found it (-- just like her mom?), hoping to negate all the damage she has done. And this works, to a point. Alas, to grant this final wish the box must still be paid; but unlike her mother, staying within character, Clare’s final sacrifice is totally unwitting and yet seemed oddly fitting given the circumstances.

And that, I guess, is the biggest problem I had with Wish Upon -- that it’s only a horror movie, or even passable entertainment, through implication and what the audience manages to piece together after the fact. (Most of the pieces we are given are round, and the holes they need to fit through are square. I understand if you do not have the patience to make it fit.) And while that kind of conjecture can be fun, it does you little good while you’re stuck in the theater as this thing flails around, failing to find traction on anything, and kinda wishing you weren’t even there.

Wish Upon (2017) Broad Green Pictures :: Busted Shark Productions :: Orion Pictures / EP: Daniel Hammond, Gabriel Hammond, Lauren McCarthy / P: Sherryl Clark, Brian Johnston / AP: Robert Leader, Ashley Peatross, Emily LaRene Roberts / LP: Victor Ho, Tracey Landon / D: John R. Leonetti / W: Barbara Marshall / C: Michael Galbraith / E: Peck Prior / M: tomandandy / S: Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Ki Hong Lee, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Mitchell Slaggert, Josephine Langford, Elisabeth Röhm

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