2018 | rated PG-13 | starring Lucy Hale | directed by Jeff Wadlow | 1hr 40mins |
Studio Pitch: It’s Truth or Dare, but it’s haunted.
Also known as Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare, with Jason Blum’s money-printing horror studio literally in the title, Truth or Dare is Blum’s latest spit-wad-against-the-wall concoction that attempts to turn a low-budget, high concept horror flick around for some quick cash. I really can’t knock Blum, other than churning out The Purge sequels, this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach granted releases to some of the better horror films or recent years – Get Out and Split to name the headliners and I’ll even defend last year’s bubble-gum pop fun Happy Death Day. Truth or Dare however is an old fashioned (what Roger Ebert called) Dead Teenager Movie that stretches that “this thing is haunted” formula to the breaking point. It feels like a parody of a Blumhouse movie.
To be perfectly honest, and possibly admit to on-coming senility, I went into this movie getting director Jeff Wadlow mixed up with Eden Lake director James Watkins. No, Wadlow made Kick-Ass 2 and Cry Wolf which more falls in line with Truth or Dare‘s flat uninspired, procedural approach to assembling horror. The story is both exhausted and convoluted. The tone swings wildly from lame and silly to really dark and button-pushing. The plot involves a group of college kids, lead by Olivia (budding scream queen Lucy Hale) as the Jamie Lee Curtis do-gooder, head down to Mexico for a weekend of craziness. The group meets a dashing stranger named Carter who leads them into an old church and invites them to play a game of Truth or Dare. This possesses the group with an omniscient Trixter demon that follows them back home and forces them to play an unwitting, extreme version of the game where non-compliance with a very strict set of rules results in a very unimagivative death.
I like a movie that has a set of unique rules to it’s world and plays inventively with them – and maybe with several more revisions Truth or Dare would shape into one of those movies. Instead the movie is undercooked and over-written. It is constantly forcing the characters to chase around explaining and re-explaining the parameters of what’s going on in order to set-up the next bizarre Truth or Dare sequence, which causes the movie to trip over itself so much that there is no time to generate any tension or horror out of this. If I were to guess, it does seem like the movie plays straight with it’s rules – there probably aren’t the dreaded internet critic “plot holes” in the film’s logic – but it’s all at the cost of an effective horror film. Wadlow doesn’t even try here, just as happy with the Trixter interfering with the love lives of college kids as he is with forcing the group to turn guns on each other and use their darkest trauma against them.
It’s junk horror and a textbook contrast with last week’s masterful atmospheric horror film A Quiet Place. That’s a movie with a deceptively simple, perfectly streamlined story that it builds set pieces of tension on and unfolds the plot with action. Truth or Dare on the other hand doesn’t set up it’s premise and then let it rip. It gives this ensemble paragraphs of exposition, introducing Olivia’s best friend Markie (Violett Beane) with a mouthful of backstory about the history of their friendship. Everyone is given one trait – the trait that will obviously be used against them. The Trixter is as all-knowing and pervy as The Bye Bye Man and the movie plays out these Truth or Dare sequences like an organized virus around the group. It’s a bit Final Destination, a bit It Follows, a bit The Ring and a bit Would You Rather.
Despite the strict rules of the game, the Trixter himself seems to operate entirely randomly. Sometimes he wants characters to confess their love to each other and other times to wants to torment someone with their father’s suicide. Just whatever the script has dreamed up at that moment – the lamest involves a lengthy sequence where The Drunk Chick character is forced to walk on the edge of a roof while finishing a bottle of liquor and we’re supposed to wince because she might fall on a spiked fence. In another Dare the Trixter commandeers a cadaver and demands a gay character come out to his macho police father – a scene that would have been interesting but gets cut entirely out of the movie. We can’t comprehend the Trixter’s plan and the actions don’t really seem to escalate in intensity. The script is also entirely tone-deaf, willing to use the image of a cop shooting a teenager in the back or a subplot involving a pedophile priest for a bit of tacky short-hand suspense. Something I would be ok with if the movie justified it better.
Truth or Dare is a teen exploitation film that wants to think it’s above that stuff. Instead of going for the Final Destination kill sequences it goes for pranks like walking on the edge of a 1 story roof. Instead of slasher movie T and A it goes for CW-esque love triangles. Instead of having the characters do detective work and solving the mystery cleverly it treats Google searches and Facebook as plot device miracle tools (in a particularly funny scene a character Googles “Truth or Dare Mexico” and gets exactly what they’re looking for). But the movie is also too dark and mean-spirited for that. It seems to think it’s Happy Death Day, but is unable to deliver that movie’s strong hero turn or fun pop tonal balance when characters are forcing guns to each other’s heads, taking hostages and mutilating each other.
Other than Hale, who gives it her all, the acting is cringingly bad, with movie heart-throb Tyler Posey serving up borderline laughable dead-eyed line-readings. Like many of these movies Truth or Dare ultimately becomes a race to unravel a decade’s old mystery that brought this ghost into the world. The mystery finds the group – quickly dwindling in numbers – to the home of the elderly wise woman (not Lynn Shaye this time) who dolls out the backstory and solution to all this – and it’s so ridiculous and gruesome there is no way this flustered movie is going to have the guts to go that far. Which of course, it doesn’t. Wadlow doesn’t know how to end it, offering a solution that doesn’t make a shred of sense and wipes out any last misplaced notion that we were supposed to root for these people.