It says something that in 2017 being jaded about Chinese-finance marketing synergy is the new being jaded about horror-film tropes. So imagine my surprise when I came back from a screening of Wish Upon — a decidedly B-level horror film in which a high-school girl studying Chinese comes into the possession of a magic Chinese music box covered in ancient Chinese characters, and must enlist the help of her cute Chinese classmate and his sister to discover the Chinese mystery of the box’s Chinese powers — only to discover it was a Canadian co-production! My sheepishness for the erroneous pigeonholing gave way to another familiar question: Why couldn’t the lead have just been Chinese? But if I’m being honest, I have to say that none of these issues made that big of a dent in my enjoyment of Wish Upon, a deeply silly midsummer lark that makes up for the fact that it’s about nothing by being incredibly entertaining.
The film’s central object is the aforementioned music box, a mystical plot device retrieved by our teenage heroine Clare (Joey King) from a dumpster while out with her junk-collecting father (Ryan Phillippe, somehow). Clare and her dad have hit hard times; after the suicide of her mother when she was a young girl, the remaining two members of the family, as well as the house they live in, are in bad decline. Clare is a classic Hollywood teenage outcast, bullied by a blonde and her crew of flunkies, whose only upgrade from their ’80s ancestors are the smartphones they wave in her face after throwing soft drinks on her. (What are they doing with the smartphones? You know, socialling at her! Stealing her Facebook points! Whatever kids do with phones!) The box, which Clare can partially translate with her rudimentary Chinese skills, promises to grant her seven wishes. Of course, there’s more, but ugh, ancient Chinese is so hard!
Clare’s thrilled when her first wish, that her blonde tormentor would “just rot,” comes disgustingly, literally true. (“They might have to amputate,” her classmates gasp.) Doubly so when a lunkheaded hot dude falls “madly in love with her” (which soon turns into a cautionary tale about the overuse of adverbs) and she inherits a wealthy uncle’s fortune. Meanwhile, we are treated to the other, untranslated side of the bargain: For every wish, the box takes a blood price, starting with Clare’s golden retriever and getting more personal from there. From there the film enters a lockstep rhythm. Clare makes a wish, we see a comically straightforward rendering of the wish coming true (this is the first film I’ve seen in a very long time with an honest-to-god shopping montage), and then we’re treated to director John Leonetti’s strongest suit: a series of minimally gory but gleefully torturous Final Destination–style freak accidents that are no less suspenseful because you know exactly what’s going to happen.
Wish Upon is the kind of horror movie where expendable characters constantly find themselves balancing on ladders while wielding chainsaws, reaching into garbage disposals next to pots of boiling water, and getting into bathtubs without slip guards. As ridiculous as they are, they work. Much of what comes in between feels like formula, but for the most part it’s all amiable enough, particularly when the movie is content to cruise along in teen-drama mode with Clare, her would-be love interest Ryan (Ki Hong Li) and her fellow uncool girls played by Sydney Park and Shannon Purser. (Yes, Barb once again bears witness to teen horror.) There’s something refreshing about Wish Upon, which doesn’t need to resort to third-act torture porn or any other feel-bad tactic to sell itself. It’s an unapologetically PG-13 scarefest, more a tickle attack than anything else. Which makes its final-seconds twist, which is smart and shocking in the tradition of the best B movies, all the more impressive. It’s not often that camp of this level is tied up with such a neat bow.