Written by: Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz, Christopher Roach, Jeff Wadlow
Directed by: Jeff Wadlow
Starring: Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, and Violett Beane
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"We're not playing the game. It's playing us."
Well, maybe effective horror can’t thrive on a clever hook alone after all. Just last week, A Quiet Place provided a strong case that a killer premise can go a long way, only for newly-released Truth or Dare to serve as equally convincing evidence to the contrary. Despite a simple, shrewd concept ("What if the childhood game of truth or dare was twisted into a legitimate, supernatural menace?"), the latest Blumhouse offering falls flat, largely because it’s in denial of just what type of movie it is. Depending on your persuasion, it’s either taking itself too seriously or not seriously enough, balking at every opportunity to be delirious trash or genuinely gripping drama. By futzing around somewhere in the middle, it’s too content to be a sanitized rehash of familiar—and better—movies, never really rising to its own potential in the process.
Spring break is upon a group of California college students headed to Mexico for one last fling before graduation. In truth, Olivia (Lucy Hale) would rather be volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, and is only convinced to tag along after her best friend Markie (Violett Beame) gives her a guilt trip (well, that and she lied to the Habitat volunteer group by claiming Olivia came down with a case of shingles—it’s funny because that’s what roofs have, you see). At any rate, the group ends up at a bar south of the border, where they soon grow tired of drinking and dancing into oblivion. Olivia is especially tired of being hit on at the bar, so when she meets Carter (Landon Liboiron)—who threatens to pummel one of her especially irritating acquaintances—it’s like someone’s tossed her a lifeboat. Somewhat smitten, she’s totally down for it when he suggests that her group of friends join him in an abandoned monastery for a game of truth or dare.
After a few typically awkward rounds involving lap dances, moral quandaries, and gossip, Carter flatly states his ultimate—if not cryptic—truth: that he’s lured them all here because he needs them to play the game so he can live. A confused Olivia protests as Carter scurries away, only to be further bewildered when Carter insists this game carries real consequences: not only must they play, but they need to answer truthfully or carry out dares in order to survive. Predictably, everyone shrugs it off and goes about their business—at least until they realize that some mysterious force is compelling them to play the demented game after all.
There’s an obvious appeal to this premise: just about everyone has played truth or dare, giving the film an immediate, universal hook that allows it to hit the ground running—or at least give the impression that it might, at any rate. Truth or Dare starts with a bang, opening with a prologue sequence that climaxes with a girl setting a woman on fire in a convenience store. Likewise, once the game has the group in its clutches, it’s quick to stir up mayhem: Olivia is forced to reveal an awful secret about Markie, while another kid breaks his neck falling off of a pool table after refusing a dare. Granted, this sort of stuff isn’t aspiring to the level of genuinely disturbing horror, but that’s fine: certainly, there’s pleasure to be gleaned from the slasher movie impulse of delighting in watching beautiful, mostly dumb kids die horribly.
Except here’s the thing: that doesn’t happen here, not really. Sure, the body count is ultimately decent enough, but director Jeff Wadlow doesn’t revel in the splattery potential of it all. Whether this is by his design or due to Blumhouse’s hesitance to restrict its obvious teenage audience, it’s disappointing all the same. Truth or Dare is the type of film that appeals to our lizard brain, as it all but invites us to wonder just how awfully the next victim is going to get it. We’re supposed to be rubberneckers, just waiting to gawk at the carnage, especially since so many of these dolts exist solely to suffer some terrible fate. Denying us the gory punchline robs the premise of most of its appeal: what kind of self-respecting dead teenager (or, in this case, young adults) movie pulls punches like this?
Maybe that’s the problem: Truth or Dare seems to have a little too much self-respect. Its apparent attempt at restraint seems noble enough, and it might have worked if you could take it seriously. Doing so is nearly impossible, however, since this is obvious trash, full of grating, disposable caricatures. How can you really be invested in a set of characters when every other line out of their mouths smacks of a “hello, fellow kids” script note scribbled by some exec trying to capture what kids today sound like? There are clichés and then there’s some of the prefabricated mincemeat rolling to the slaughter here: save for a subplot involving a closeted character and his bigoted father, none of these characters feel like actual people. They’re just reservoirs of icky personal drama, walking dick pics, or raging egos, and the film baits you with trashy intrigue—just how serious can this film really be when the tension here boils down to who’s fucking who or who’s writing under-the-table prescriptions?
Again, that’s not an inherently bad set-and-up-and-knock-em-down approach—you just find yourself wishing Truth or Dare were a little more indulgent in the knocking down part. A pool of cartoonish blood seeping from beneath a door isn’t nearly as cool as actually seeing someone stab themselves in the face with a pen, you know? You’re left with something that feels like diet Final Destination, as you watch these kids figure out the increasingly twisty, labyrinthine rules and the mythology driving them. At one point, it feels like the script has backed itself into the corner: “why wouldn’t everyone just choose ‘truth?’” you smugly ask yourself, only to watch the movie introduce a new wrinkle to the game. Admittedly, it makes for a nice “oh shit” moment, and I was fairly well taken with the cleverness, if only because I thought it signaled the film was going to finally hit another (hopefully gory) gear and embrace just how goddamn ridiculous and fun this premise could be.
Truth or Dare never keeps that momentum, though: once it’s had enough of echoing Final Destination, it retraces the steps of The Ring and its knock-offs once the kids make a predictable trip back to Mexico to uncover the origin of this twisted game (after a quick Google search, of course). They’re greeted with a mouthful of expository nonsense involving the old convent and the scandal that had it closed down, leading to the discovery that the game is beatable with a cocktail of mystic spells and bodily sacrifices. You can feel Truth or Dare disappearing up its own ass at this point, which would be fine if it didn’t continually insist on assuming you really give a damn if they figure all of this out or not. Cryptic drama between Oliva and Markie fuels the climax, wherein the two’s friendship is put the test by the quandaries conjured up by the game (which is actually a decently sharp payoff to the hypothetical quandary Olivia faces in the first, more harmless round of truth or dare at the beginning).
The pretense here is still kind of galling, especially since the underlying moral is sort of awful. Throughout the film, Olivia is a selfless do-gooder whose trust in others is seen as a weakness, and, unlike, oh, I don’t know, any film with a reasonable moral compass, Truth or Dare sides with the notion that she is getting screwed over. Rather than rewarding Olivia’s faith in people, it indulges the horseshit idea that she only should protect herself and her friends, leading to an insane resolution that will effectively fuck up the entire world population—all because she and her BFF deserve to live with their friendship intact. When the climax of your movie would delight the likes of Ayn Rand, you might want to walk some things back: it’d be one thing if this were some kind of dark, comic note to end on, but Truth or Dare feels totally sincere about it.
Sincerity is usually fine, but this is the rare instance where it’s misguided because the film isn't behing honest with itself: Truth or Dare is complete junk that refuses to acknowledge as such. It’s much too self-assured for a movie that features a group of college students being haunted by a game that plasters an idiotic grin on people’s faces like some kind of Satanic Snapchat filter. This is the flip side of the PG-13 horror debate that inevitably rages when one of these things hits theaters: where A Quiet Place (not to mention Happy Death Day, last year’s Blumhouse breakout hit) proved that ratings don’t matter if the film is legitimately committed to investing in its characters and tension, Truth or Dare reminds us that some movies are better off just embracing their gory, trashy impulses. When people bemoan this strain of horror, this is exactly the type of film they’re thinking about: needlessly sanitized and mostly forgettable junk that should swing for the fences instead of bunting.
Even if it results in an inoffensive time-waster in this case, there’s the nagging sense that audiences have missed out on something that should have been more unhinged, messy, and, ultimately, more fun. Truth or Dare might be perfectly fine and even boast a few amusing moments, but that’s not what you want from a premise that’s ripe for unabashed mayhem. For a film that takes its title from a do-or-die proposition, it sure does stammer and stutter when answering the bell, standing pat like some kind of chickenshit that always chooses “truth” instead of taking an actual risk.
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