"WISH UPON" — 2 stars — Joey King, Ryan Phillippe; __Ki Hong Lee,Shannon Purser, Sydney Park; PG-13 (violent and disturbing images, thematic elements and language); in general release__
When you make a wish, someone dies. That's the central premise of "Wish Upon," a bizarre horror movie about a teenager who uses a magic Chinese music box to solve all her adolescent problems.
The audience understands this premise, but teenage Clare Shannon (Joey King) doesn't. All she knows is that somehow the dusty old box her dumpster-diving, saxophone-playing, scavenger father, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), gave her is giving her whatever she wants: money, affection and revenge against the blonde bully at school (Josephine Langford).
Clare also doesn't know that the same box is responsible for her mother's (Elisabeth Rohm) suicide 12 years earlier, which we witnessed in the prologue. Jonathan and Clare never moved after the tragedy and, strangely, Clare has never picked her bike up off the lawn from where she dropped it the afternoon of her mom's death.
Maybe that history with death explains why it takes Clare a little while to notice the bodies that start piling up as she's making all her wishes. First it's her dog, then her rich Uncle August (Victor Sutton), who leaves her all his money. The sweet neighbor lady across the street (Sherilyn Fenn) dies alone, but luckily her body is still waiting patiently in her kitchen when Clare stops by a few days later at a more convenient moment for the plot.
It could also be that Clare is just too distracted by the newfound affections of Paul (Mitchell Slaggert), her longtime crush who wouldn't give her the time of day before the magic music box took over his hormones, or the brand-new bank account that allows Clare to buy expensive purses for her formerly anti-materialistic best friends Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser).
Clare is curious enough about the box to recruit the services of her classmate Ryan (Ki Hong Lee) to translate the Chinese characters around its surface. This thread leads to the loft-dwelling hipster Gina (Alice Lee), who traces the box to a Chinese bubonic plague survivor named Lu Mei.
"Wish Upon" is a singularly strange movie, teetering between intentional camp and pure clumsiness. It's good enough to be fun, but not quite good enough to be good. It has enough sense to play with its premise, but it lacks the skill to do it well.
It is also spectacularly violent, rated PG-13 only because the camera lurches away just in time to avoid a harsher rating. Yet the violence is so sudden and ham-fisted that it practically feels like slapstick. It's disturbing, funny and not remotely scary, unless you find saxophone solos terrifying.
Consider the demise of Uncle August. It's still early in the film, but the audience already has the sense that when Clare makes a wish, someone is going to have to pay for it. Poor, doomed Uncle August is getting ready for a bath, and the audience knows he's about to buy it. So no one is surprised when he slips and hits his head on the side of the tub, slumping into the water as the faucet continues to flow. But he's still alive and conscious, so he struggles against the water pouring down on his face until he lurches up and knocks his head against the faucet, finishing the job. It's about a half-step from a Three Stooges routine.
In more capable hands, "Wish Upon" could have been really good. If director John R. Leonetti had run with the tone set by scenes like the one in the bathtub, the total product might have come together. Instead, "Wish Upon" slips on the banana peels it didn't place as often as it slips on the ones it designed. As is, it's definitely in guilty pleasure territory. But that pleasure could have been so much sweeter.
"Wish Upon" is rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing images, thematic elements and language; running time: 90 minutes.