“Wish Upon” revives the Orientalist mysticism at the heart of the teen-friendly “Gremlins” — an enigmatic Asian artifact leads to mayhem and murder — but it’s nowhere as entertaining as the 1984 horror classic.
The movie opens, ominously, with a melancholy suburban mom (Elisabeth Röhm) placing a canvas-wrapped item in the trash as her young daughter tools around the block on her bike. Moments later, the girl returns home to discover that her mother has hanged herself in the attic.
Twelve years later, that girl, Clare (Joey King), is a bullied high-schooler embarrassed by her widowed, pack-rat dad, Jonathan (Ryan Philippe), who scavenges Dumpsters for junk to sell.
Jonathan’s rummaging turns up an intricately carved box covered with Chinese characters. He gives it to Clare, who has learned enough Chinese at school to read part of the box’s inscription: It grants seven wishes. Fresh from a public fight with the school’s queen bee, Darcie (Josephine Langford), Clare makes a childishly mean-spirited wish: “I wish Darcie would just go rot.” The box eventually opens, plays a creepy melody and closes. The next morning, Darcie wakes up with necrotizing fasciitis consuming her body.
News of Darcie’s blackened flesh leads Clare to suspect that her Chinese music box might have real power, so she proceeds to wish for what many teens desire: love from the cutest boy in school; wealth (from a recently deceased relative’s estate); and for dad to stop being “so embarrassing.” Now dating a beautiful boyfriend, rich and entertained by a father who plays smooth-jazz sax — which somehow qualifies as not embarrassing — Clare is finally the most popular girl in school, another wish.
What Clare fails to understand is that her wishes aren’t free, even after she is confronted by a classmate (Ki Hong Lee) whose cousin has managed to translate more of the inscription. A demon inside the music box, it seems, demands a “blood price” for each wish and has begun exacting it from those around Clare. You’d think a girl with so much death surrounding her would immediately dump the box. But she inexplicably doubles down, figuring that if she already feels guilty for the calamities the box has caused, why should she go back to being poor and miserable?
Director John R. Leonetti targets a younger audience than with his R-rated “Annabelle,” in what amounts to an unsatisfying combination of “Final Destination” and “The Box.” Beyond middle-schoolers, it’s unclear who would enjoy this derivative, cliche-filled exercise in horror lite.
On the bright side, Clare’s two truth-telling best friends, June and Meredith (Shannon Purser and Sydney Park), are the best things about the film. Park is notable as a snarky gamer who doesn’t put up with Clare’s nonsense. Purser (“Stranger Things”) side-eyes a best friend too interested in the cool crowd to see who’s genuinely loyal.