Aaron Hammond’s life is not going well: he wants to be a big league lawyer, but in reality he can’t earn enough from his cases to pay the rent. Then his father dies. Forced to return to a life he thought he’d left behind, Aaron comes into the possession of an unusual urn, and his luck suddenly changes…
The premise of The Final Wish—an ancient genie in a bottle grants one’s desires, but exacts a terrible price for services rendered—is standard horror fare, but this film’s screenplay takes its time revealing it explicitly. Clearly, the director, Timothy Woodward Jr., believes this gradual unfolding of the conceit was for the better; I think, for the worse. By the time we can appreciate some of the film’s cleverer narrative twists and turns, it’s difficult to connect with the material. The first hour or so of the movie is mostly setup, with a teaser sequence that feels gratuitous in hindsight. It also doesn’t help that we’re almost immediately ahead of the characters and remain so until the very end.
Why is the film uninvolving? Part of the problem is the way the camera cheats with the audience. Consider, for instance, that opening sequence. After Lynette hears the sound and the light comes on, we don’t see what she sees, but only part of it, and so her response fails to make sense until several shots later, when all is finally, melodramatically revealed. A similar technique is used when Aaron returns to his hometown and is startled by the neighbor’s dog. The camera deliberately withholds from us what Aaron’s perception of the dog’s proximity would be, only to startle us several cuts later. And so we soon lose our trust in the picture. If the film lacks confidence in its own material, and feels that it needs to resort to these overt visual misdirections in the service of sensationalistic shocks, why should we believe in it? Then too, notice how the character of Lisa is obviously objectified by the film’s gaze. No bueno.
Another problem is the sense of familiarity that seeps into the proceedings about a third of the way in, and only gets worse as we go. The first shot of Kate’s home prompted me to make a note; “this looks like the house from Annabelle: Creation.” Turns out that it is. Some of the dolly moves and camera push-ins aggressively replicate the distinctive style of Insidious. Other moments seem familiar from, variously, the original Pet Sematary, the Wishmaster series (minus, alas, the campy thrills), the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake (think of the diner scene, for example) and yes, the Final Destination films, whose story also originated with Jeffrey Reddick. It doesn’t help that the movie, in addition to its languid start, is a pretty morose affair. If you’re looking for fun, the trailer to the somewhat obscure, similarly-themed The Outing (aka The Lamp), will provide more delectation in under two minutes than the whole of this flick.
I attended the one-day only theatrical screening of The Final Wish on January 24th and was pleased to find the movie preceded by a prerecorded intro from Lin Shaye, as well as the promise of a cast-and-crew Q&A after the feature. Unfortunately, none of that improved my experience. During Shaye’s intro—which contained an explicit reference to Insidious; that right there put me on guard—my excitement gave way to worry. If the movie was as good as her scripted text seemed to indicate, why did the filmmakers feel the need to have their star pre-emptively talk it up this much? Most of the audience didn’t stick around for the short Q&A, and I have to say, they didn’t miss much. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit revealed was that Shaye seems to have ended up in the film almost through happenstance, as she answered an email from one of the filmmakers after her agent had already told them that Shaye was unavailable. This brings us to one of my central issues with The Final Wish: the inconsistency of the performances, which I think is the result of the director’s choices rather than the performers’.
Let me say upfront that Shaye does terrific work here. Her range and craft are wonderful, and she compellingly embodies grief, regret, and desperation-fueled insanity, along with other more subtle emotions and registers. If only the screenplay by Jeffrey Reddick, William Halfon and Jonathan Doyle served her better. Michael Welch creates a believable Aaron, and manages to eventually sell a tricky emotional arc, but his performance is often muted by comparison with Shaye’s, and thus overshadowed by her pyrotechnics. They seem to ultimately inhabit not only different metaphysical plains but different movies. Kaiwi Lyman is fine as Derek, but his theatricality is again at odds with Welch’s choices. Tony Todd, though appearing briefly, delivers his lines with the veteran craftiness and theatrical gravitas of the pro that he is. He carries the library sequence, which serves to underscore, I’m sorry to say, the film’s weakest turn: Melissa Bolona as Lisa. Her choices, particularly her voice inflections, simply didn’t work for me. Combined with the pacing issues I mentioned earlier, this led to a number of early and mid-movie scenes falling flat and generally lacking in affect. Spencer Locke, in her brief depiction of Lynette, gave me the impression that she would have made a far stronger Lisa. Reverse those two casting choices, as far as I’m concerned, and at least one problem would be solved.
While the film is initially big on teasing us about who is pulling the strings, and later which characters are actually who they appear to be, versus the djinn in disguise, its final revelation of the evil creature is, hmmm, underwhelming. The strobe-spattered monster ends up, I’m afraid, as more Groot than Grand Guignol.
The plot doesn’t make much sense, either. Sometimes the djinn resorts to elaborate Rube Goldberg mechanics, other times to convoluted psychological manipulations. Characters seem to roam in and out of their own lives and responsibilities as the script demands, as for instance with Lisa, who is soon spending all of her time with Aaron, despite being married to Derek, and, one supposes, having some kind of independent life of her own before Aaron returned to the scene.
In short, the film feels undercooked and potentially rushed to market. Some of the individual beats work—for example, Kate’s indignation at Aaron’s sale of her husband’s belongings functions nicely as both character and plot development—but the scares are few and far between, the character interrelationships difficult to buy into, and the overall execution derivative. What can I say? Wishing simply doesn’t make it so.