There are certain tales that are so simple, so primal, that every few years or so we more-or-less have to tell them again. One such tale is W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, a seminal 1902 horror story about a magical artifact that grants wishes, but only at unthinkable costs. Wish for money, you inherit that money someone you love dies. Wish for that person to come back to life, they come back as a zombie. You get the idea.
It’s tempting to apply the old axiom “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” to The Monkey’s Paw but to me, that’s always been a difficult sell. That danged paw goes out of its way to fulfill your wishes as ironically and annoyingly as possible. It’s enough to make one wonder whether your wishes are truly obscene, or whether the real problem is that anyone or anything powerful enough to make your wishes come true probably doesn’t give a damn about you.
Wish Upon, the latest supernatural horror thriller from John R. Leonetti (Annabelle), takes the idea of The Monkey’s Paw and sets it in a contemporary high school. Joey King plays Clare Shannon, a teenaged outsider who stumbles across a Chinese music box that grants wishes. So, being a selfish teenager, she wishes to smite her enemies, brainwash her hunky crush, inherit millions of dollars and completely change her father’s personality to make him “cool”.
Indeed, Clare gets so wrapped up in her newfound wealth and privilege that it takes her about half the movie to notice that every time she makes a wish, someone around her dies. By the time she does find out she’s too far gone. Clare is not happy that people are dead but she doesn’t care enough to be sacrifice her personal inconvenience. She is the horrifying personification of modern privilege, and through her the film seems eager to disprove the myths that a) wealth has a direct correlation to your moral worth, and b) the success of the 1% has any positive repercussions for anybody else.
It’s a successful and disturbing allegory, and a clever new interpretation of a timeless tale. Sure enough, as Clare gets everything she wished for without any repercussions whatsoever, everybody else is forced to suffer. That the music box’s victims are typically the poor, the elderly and people of color could hardly be a coincidence.
As refreshing as it is that a film like Wish Upon, which could easily have coasted on irony and murder, has something to actually say about the world we live in, it also has to function as an engaging horror movie. Thank goodness, it mostly works on that level. Joey King is brings a lot of honesty and depth to a character who, by the end of the film, could easily have lost all our sympathies, and the film’s slick production and confident pacing keep the events involving, and sometimes a little creepy.
I say “mostly” and “sometimes” and “a little’ because even though the film effectively explores its subject matter, and even though the performances are fine, Wish Upon never quite gets ghoulish enough to be terrifying. The deaths in the film must, in order for the plot to work, be simple enough to get written off as accidents, but they ultimately play like mediocre Final Destination slayings instead of gruesome tragedies.
Wish Upon is a well-produced, thoughtful horror movie… but never a great one. And yet, as stories like this have taught us time and time again, you can’t have everything. OR CAN YOU???
Top Photo: Broad Green Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.