Monday, July 17, 2017

Careful What You WISH UPON

They don’t usually make horror movies this kind of bad anymore. That’s why there’s something quaint about how entirely ineffective Wish Upon is. This isn’t a found-footage headache, or a scuzzy faux-exploitation wink, or an element of 80’s nostalgia (despite Stranger Things’ Barb turning up in a very Barb-like supporting role). This isn’t a franchise, sequel, slasher remake, or low-budget VOD title. This isn’t a wide, cost-effective Blumhouse release or an art house slow burn. This is an old-fashioned high-concept teen chiller, where good-looking youngsters get tangled up in something that’ll inevitably kill them. Maybe we’re just moving from 80’s nostalgia to late-90’s cycle of YA frights, because this new movie is swimming in the same waters as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer (a star of which turns up as father of a teen here), albeit in the shallow end of that pool. In telling a teenage riff on The Monkey’s Paw through a wish-granting evil Chinese music box, the film fails to conjure up striking iconography, scary sequences, or memorable characters. It’s just no good, but at least it’s a different kind of bad than we’re used to seeing.

It follows a mopey teen outcast (Joey King) who cringes and shrinks from the popular bullies, snarks with her pals, and is embarrassed by her trash-picker father (Ryan Phillippe). He’s the one who scavenges the box – in its heavy, ornate, black-and-red design the thing looks like a Hellraiser device – and therefore sets the whole thing in motion. (Of course, it dates further back, to her mother (Elisabeth Röhm) who mysteriously hangs herself in the opening scene, and to a century earlier in China, or so a supporting character reads to us off a fictional Wikipedia page.) The girl, not knowing it’s a magic box and just taking a plot-convenient guess, places her hands on the object and wishes her arch-nemesis would go rot. The next day the popular glamor girl isn’t in school on account of a nasty infection. Voila! Next our lead girl wishes for love, riches, popularity, and everything else you’d expect. But it comes at a price as side characters keep meeting grisly ends – a slip in the tub, a ponytail down the garbage disposal, and other sub-Final Destination circumstances (my, how I’d like that series to come back to us!). Quite hilariously, the camera will later spy a newspaper clipping which blares in bold type: “Police Warn of Uptick in Unusual Deaths,” or something to that effect. Barbara Marshall (Terra Nova) had a screenplay with such a great idea, it’s a shame to see it flail with chintzy flimsiness. 

The whole production is pathetically limp. There’s not an ounce of atmosphere to the flat digital photography and over-lit design, though certainly seeing director John R. Leonetti (Annabelle) use staging for maximum PG-13 coyness and strangely flat-footed setups doesn’t help matters. Scenes unnaturally stop and start, chopping away without letting an ominous clue settle in and hacking into the next without any preamble. It feels slapped together, as if moving along fast enough would outrun how ludicrous it all becomes. No character behaves believably, making leaps of logic and avoiding obvious solutions for the sake of prolonging its runtime. (Wish the box never existed! Duh! Why doesn’t anyone mention it, even if only for a clever write-around?) The dialogue clunks and clanks, not allowing any character to develop personality or accrue backstory. It’s cringing and clumsy, about as earnestly stupid as horror movies get. Then there’s loads of inadvertent comedy from the preposterous violence one notch below flat-out slapstick and from the basic fumbling plot mechanics. My favorite laugh comes when our lead wishes her dad was cool. Cut to him serenading her friends by playing saxophone in the living room, complete with a jazz band backup who are never seen before or after. The girls stare at him in awe. The movie is full of such clumsiness, right up to and including a howlingly low-res establishing shot that might as well be sourced from MiniDV. Who could possibly see that and approve it for big screen consumption? It’s all symptomatic of a good concept thoroughly sunk by botched execution at every turn. They don’t make them like they used to. That’s not always a compliment.

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