Whoa, I’m doing it. I’m actually writing a post for my blog. According to, well, this website, I haven’t written a post since June 20th, which means it’s been almost a month. To be honest, it’s not a feeling I enjoy, but I have two part time jobs, and I have to start reading like a maverick for my PhD candidacy exam in late August (I mean, I’ve been reading for it, assiduously, but now I have to start reading like a maverick). With more books to read (at least, in an ideal world) than I’m feasibly going to get done before exam time, I couldn’t justify spending time writing these posts. But, seven minutes ago I turned 33, so I treated myself to a pre-birthday movie with Michael, and now I’m enjoying some birthday blogging. I plan on being wildly self-indulgent for the next twenty-four hours (which, for me, means something like a nice walk at the peninsula and a turkey sausage breakfast sandwich at Panera), so I shall write freely, with no thought of the theory text I’m reading or the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (which are the two things I’m supposed to be focusing on).
There are two horror movies playing this week (happy birthday to me!) – some shark movie (which I just mentioned indifferently but which I’m actually really excited to see), and Wish Upon, a Blumehouse produced movie about a girl who makes wishes on a magic box…and suffers the consequences, of course. Stated as such, the movie probably sounds anticlimactic, but I actually had a lot of fun watching it. I’ve been experiencing mad anxiety lately (I wrote an entire post on it, then didn’t post it because it felt too personal), so I can appreciate anything that plucks me from my surroundings enough to help me forget mortality, unnerving headaches, and to-do lists. I mention that because I was completely enmeshed in this movie (although, most horror films will do that to me). Since I no longer smoke, I’m kind of a chain-chewer (various flavors of trident, not chewing-tobacco), but I hesitated to bend down, pick up my purse, and fish for another stick of gum during parts of the film, not because it was incredibly action-packed, but because I thought it was really interesting. I was, I guess, sufficiently pulled into the film’s world. And, like all stories of this type (stories that center around the ethics of typically selfish wish-making) it raised enough questions to be fairly thought-provoking. It wasn’t what Dave Eggers would call a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but I had fun watching it, and at least temporarily forgot how insane I am.
So…like I said, the movie is about a girl (a teenager, at that) who finds a magic box and makes wishes. It scored a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 4.7 on IMDB. In other words, the critics weren’t having it. But I thought it was cool. And I digressed. The movie starts with a young Clare Shannon (Joey King) who, as a small child, walks in on her mother committing suicide. Then the film flashes forward to Clare’s teenage years. Her dad, an embarrassing dumpster diver (Jonathan Shannon, played by Ryan Philippe) finds a mysterious box with Chinese lettering in one of the garbage cans he’s foraged through, and so Clare possesses the embodiment of great power – and great evil. Though Clare is in Chinese class, the engravings on the box are written in Ancient Chinese, so she doesn’t understand the ominous stipulations of using the box until she’s obsessed with the ability to manipulate her reality by wishing away what she doesn’t want and wishing for what she does. You can infer the rest from there.
If you’re a fan of classic horror, you might be saying, yawn, classic Monkey’s Paw story (and yes, the title of that short story is highlighted because I wrote about “The Monkey’s Paw” on a very early blog post, back in the days when I wrote about more short stories). And it really is a modern adaptation of what has become, I would argue, some sort of American fable-myth-legend (my definitions are all messed up). Initially I critiqued the film’s plot for that reason, but as a literature enthusiast, I have to remember that various stories come from similar origins (as famous mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, it’s all one story), and sometimes there’s nothing more intriguing then how a classic tale has been altered or adapted – in general, and especially for a modern (film) audience. Without reiterating the exact plot of W.W. Jacob’s famous (and famously macabre) tale, this film encapsulates the spirit and thematic essence of The Monkey’s Paw, in 21st century America, with a teenage girl (and with a different physical vehicle for wish-making and evil). I think I can appreciate a twist on a classic story (and maybe even a classic trope), and while I could quibble over technicalities of this film, I was never bored and seldom disappointed as I watched it, so I won’t be giving it the scathing critiques that I imagine many professional film critics did. I am, after all, just an ordinary girl who likes a good scary movie. My tastes, when it comes to horror, are eclectic and generally inclusive.
Joey King, first of all, is a great female lead who commands attention and does a good job capturing a teenager who I would argue is a fairly complex character. On the one hand, she’s smart, assertive, and independent. When she’s bullied for no reason by a particularly annoying, vapid classmate, she readily stands her ground with clever retorts and a face slap (a decision that catapults into a recorded fist fight). Despite being relentlessly picked on by a select few, she has two close friends who seem like they’re kind of on the fringes of the high school’s sub-culture, but far from nerdy in a Steve Erkel way (they’re sassy women with good wits and cute clothes). Despite her position as a (surprisingly cool) girl on the margins, and despite her ostensible self-confidence, there’s still a part of Clare that salivates over the very cliché popular boy in school and yearns to fit in—even to be adored. While this dissonance could conceivably detract from her character, I thought it made her more layered, and more believable. She was very much a plausible high school girl to me – a girl with a well-forming sense of self who’s still developing and working on navigating life’s challenges – and her combination of strength and frailty may be one explanation for her reckless stream of wishes, even in the face of the possibility that those wishes are provoking (very, very) negative consequences.
What I liked most about the film aside from Joey King’s performance was the elusive wish-box, and all the questions it raises. Having had some experience with alcoholism and addiction, the strange Chinese wish-box seemed, on an allegorical level, like a drug to me. And its marked potency raises the question: to what extent is Clare ever truly the “master of her fate” (as William Earnest Henley quotes in a poem) once she finds the box. Though as the film progresses, some of her wishes seem outlandish and recklessly self-indulgent, there is a sense that the box is controlling her. One of her friends even states so much, after she’s made a few wishes and she’s in the thick of the chaos. She hides her use of the box, lies about how many wishes she’s made, defends her decision to keep the box, and is pictured, in a few scenes, as disheveled, pale, and sweating (if you don’t know much about alcoholism and addiction, these are classic traits and signs). Clare starts wishing on the box to (seemingly) gain control of things she can’t control in her life: her family’s finances, her social status at school, and so forth. But (and this is the way it works with addiction) the more she tries to claim control, the more the box (drug) gains control of her, and so, the more she loses control. This was an important observation to me, because without it, it’s easy to be annoyed by her character: she wishes selfishly and recklessly, even in the face of horrible things happening that could be a result of using the box. And her friends point this out, but she keeps doing it. However, on the one hand, she’s an ostracized, partially-desperate teenager. And, more importantly, at a certain point, the box (drug) is completely in control, and maybe it was as soon as she touched it.
Which leads me to one of my recent favorite topics on this blog: power, control, etc. I wrote in a recent blog post that a lot of strife (in horror films, but in fiction in general) comes from characters who lack control over certain elements of their lives and resort to desperate (read, stupid, dangerous, outlandish, etc.) means to gain control. Clare is the embodiment of this trope, although her decision is incredibly forgivable because (as I mentioned) she’s a bullied teenager, and it may have never been her decision: the box may have manipulated her as soon as she possessed it. What the film could have done better is nuanced the ultimate message of the film. I don’t think I spoil too much by saying that, thematically, the film cautions us against a lot of things: selfishness, greed, impulsiveness, and, mostly, ingratitude. A portion of the film makes it emphatically clear that despite Clare’s setbacks, there were beautiful elements of her life that she overlooked, took for granted, or rejected completely, before she enlisted the box to alter her reality through black magic. Honestly, I appreciate simple messages like “be thankful for the good things in your life,” but the film could have done more, toward the conclusion, to emphasize her former struggles and make her decision to use the box (once, and then continuously) more debatable. I find Clare, ultimately, to be a flawed, complex, sympathetic character, but the film’s themes seem pretty straightforward: along with what I just mentioned, it emphasizes, like all make-a-wish stories, there’s nothing for free in the universe, and if you manipulate fate, you better be prepared to deal with the consequences. That, and, be careful what you wish for. One might question whether the box is severely putative or pure evil (the distinction is remarkably ambiguous, here), but considering the answer to that question would necessitate more spoilers than I’m willing to give.
Ultimately, I would encourage the horror fan to give this one a go. I might even encourage horror newbies to watch it: I found the film interesting, dramatic, and thought-provoking, but it wasn’t incredibly scary. The deaths are very freak-accident, Final Destination – esque deaths, but they’re not executed in particularly grotesque, unnerving ways, and so-called jump scares and supernatural phenomena are very minimal (aside from the box, of course). The film carries with it a sort of typical horror vibe, but I’d rate the scare factor as mild-to-moderate, at best. There’s a degree of suspense, but nothing that really makes you want to close your eyes, and nothing that will keep you awake at night. In addition to experiencing a relatively chill horror film that (if approached correctly) might make you think a little bit, you’ll get to see 90’s star Ryan Phillippe playing a morose father who digs through garbage. (I found it nice to see a familiar face from my youth as a moviegoer in this film.) In short, while this film was no groundbreaking work of art, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the critics said it was, and you should probably give it some love.