One of the tenets of the canonical teen series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is that there’s no such thing as getting something for nothing. That doctrine applied most to magic: Each time a character cast a spell, a monster would be released nearby — coercion comes at a price. In true “Buffy” form, it’s a potent morality lesson wrapped up in winsome hocus-pocus: You can’t exercise power without someone else bearing the brunt of that force.
With twice the running time of a “Buffy” episode, “Wish Upon” delivers a fraction of the thematic and character development on the same premise. Unpopular high-schooler Clare (Joey King) idly hopes aloud that her bully (Josephine Langford) would, like, just rot while hugging the creepily carved, vaguely Chinese-y coffer that her junk-scavenger father (Ryan Phillippe) had pulled from the garbage that morning. (It’s the thought and not the decomposing-food stench that counts?)
Little does Clare know that her new Oriental Murderbox is more than willing to necrotize the school’s mean girl, or to make her crush fall in love with her, or to arrange for Clare and her dad to receive a huge windfall — as long as it gets to kill people in her orbit.
Barbara Marshall’s Black List script has one promising trope reversal going for it. Despite warnings by a Chinese-American classmate (Ki Hong Lee, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) that her Dragon Chest of Doom is causing people to die, Clare doesn’t care enough about the violence inflicted upon those around her to reverse the slaughter.
Exit the horror genre’s innocent virgins; enter the world’s ultimate entitled millennial. But the great-on-paper reveal that Clare is a sociopath — or that General Tso’s Octagon of Death has made her one — is frustratingly underserved by King’s narrow range and the skimpy emotionality of her character.
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Had director John R. Leonetti (“Annabelle,” “The Butterfly Effect 2”) the slightest interest in the inner lives of teenage girls (i.e., at least half the film’s characters), “Wish Upon” wouldn’t so often mistake “light” for “silly.” The inclusion of a shopping montage is pure condescension (“TEEN GURLZ LUV MALLS, RIGHT??????”), and there’s little believability in Clare’s friendships with her besties (Shannon Purser of “Stranger Things” and an instantly charismatic Sydney Park, “Instant Mom”).
Needless to say, a story about a girl whose identity and relationships are dramatically transformed by her choices becomes more interesting the more we learn who she is and why she surrounds herself with the people that she does. Instead, we’re forced to endure the horror genre’s usual gibberish about the demon inside Clare’s Jade Wok Panda Kill Trunk and its monomania for ending human lives.
(Just keep egging on climate-change denialists, and you’ll get all the souls you want and more in a few centuries, ya dumb devils. You’d think spirits blessed with immortality would exhibit a bit more patience.)
I’ll cop to a bit of tossing and turning the night of my screening — but only because I’m the easiest person to scare after Alex “Pizzagate Is Real“ Jones. But that’s not to say that “Wish Upon” is effective as a horror movie. The death scenes range from goofy and completely preventable to modestly suspenseful. (The PG-13 rating ensures that they’re not very graphic.) More satisfying are the pair of twists that conclude the picture — but you’ll still wish that you’d stayed home to watch “Buffy” reruns instead.