The pitch for “Wish Upon” has plenty of potential: A high concept horror movie that basically aims to be “Heathers” meets “Final Destination” with a dash of “The Monkey’s Paw.” Unpopular teenager Clare (Joey King) comes across an ancient Chinese box with the ability to grant eight wishes, which she leverages to make her family wealthy and improve the quality of her life bit by bit, not realizing that every wish comes with a tradeoff — someone close to her must die. And so they do, again and again, as the gears in the box turn slowly and an eerie song plays, so by the time Clare learns her lesson, it’s obviously too late. Unfortunately, by the time “Wish Upon” gets around to establishing this grim premise, it’s already too late to turn it into anything remotely exciting on its own terms.
Accept the sheer absurdity of the conceit and it’s almost a fun, stupid ride for some of the time, as pure derivative campiness in a bottle has an inherent appeal, but the ingredients don’t gel beyond that. However, director John R. Leonetti (“Annabelle”), working from Barbara Marshall’s screenplay, does a competent job of establishing Clare’s somber world. After a prologue in which her mother commits suicide during Clare’s childhood, the movie flashes forward to her beleaguered teen life: She hangs with fellow outcasts Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser) while distancing herself from her scrappy father (Ryan Phillippe), who spends his days scavenging through garbage cans looking for loot.
At school, she glares at the popular kids across the locker room hallway and winds up in a messy fistfight. Seething with rage, she comes to home find that her dad has rescued a music box from a nearby; on a whim, Clare dreams of retribution against her bully in gross physical terms that naturally come true. The next day, she sighs, and literally says, “OK, box, you have my attention.” Then she makes another dumb wish, to entrance the high school hunk of her dreams, and promptly acquires a nutty stalker. The blunt momentum of the movie’s plot starts to sag, with tin-eared dialogue making it obvious that the the story can’t possibly offer up much more than variations on one ridiculous idea again and again.
Things get worse from there. As bodies pile up from her extended network, Clare slowly realizes that she’s messing the very foundations of her reality. In the meantime, she enlists good-natured classmate Ryan (Ki Hong Li) to help her translate the scrawling on the box, not realizing or not caring that he obviously has real feelings for her. But stupid Clare keeps making her ridiculous wishes: Her life gets lavish, her dad gets cool, and everybody loves her, but she’s still isolated by her ongoing drive for something more. It’s admittedly entertaining to watch her keep going back to the box even as chaos enshrouds her existence, but “Wish Upon” offers no credible reason for this reckless behavior once the character realizes the tradeoff. Every wish gets someone close to her killed, and her transition into a giggly, power-hungry psychopath is like someone’s idea of a scary story that never made it through the writing process.
Still, gore fiends will delight in a few innovative kill scenes that draw from the macabre Rube Goldberg-style approach that made the “Final Destination” movies such twisted delights. One slow-building death involving a garbage disposal is downright Hitchcockian in the way it builds expectations around a single grisly possibility then veers in a more shocking direction.
Leonetti aims to please, but this PG-13 genre effort tames its violence to noticeable effect, in an obvious bid to make a horror movie for teens who can relate to Clare’s plight. (Of course, young horror fans have found crafty ways to see R-rated slasher movies for decade, so why interfere with tradition?) The notion of a desperate teen keen on improving her surroundings almost holds water, but “Wish Upon” neuters its characters: While King (“Ramona Beezus”) imbues Clare with an impressive degree of fragility, she basically has two modes — whiny, terrified and angry — while her friends are one-note concoctions. That includes wide-eyed Purser, aka Barb from “Stranger Things,” whose more distinctive style hints at unseen depths that suggest she might have been better suited for the lead role.
Then again, she deserves better than this. “Wish Upon” careens toward a blunt finale in which every good deed must be punished, as Clare’s attempt to set things right naturally only makes things worse. That’s a reliable formula for effective horror, but “Wish Upon” falls back on it in such obvious, knee-jerk fashion that it could have tacked on a shrug emoji in its credits. Fortunately, you don’t need to wish for better versions of the movie experience “Wish Upon” calls to mind; they exist, and deserve repeat viewings far more than “Wish Upon” deserves one.
“Wish Upon” opens Friday, July 14.