Having championed and spearheaded creative horror films such as Get Out and Lights Out, Blumhouse Productions has gained a welcome reputation for distributing a successful stream of reasonably budgeted horror films, their quality leaning more towards the stronger end of the scale: lest we forget, Get Out was an unexpected awards success this year, taking home a gong for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars.
However, it seems that, as Joe E. Brown famously told us at the end of Some Like It Hot, “nobody’s perfect”. So it is with Blumhouse, setting themselves up with a novel concept in director Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare, their latest horror outing, ready to hit it out of the park, only to discover that they’ve got a poorly-written, unintentionally hilarious dud on their hands that still provides entertainment, but on a schlocky, pulpy level that is far behind their usual standard.
Truth or Dare follows final-year students Olivia (Lucy Hale) and her group of friends, Lucas (Tyler Posey), Markie (Violett Beane), Penelope (Sophia Taylor Ali), Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and Ronnie (Sam Lerner), as they embark on what is to be their “last Spring Break” (look, they said it, not me). Travelling to Mexico, they encounter the mysterious Carter (Landon Liboiron) who innocuously invites them to a decrepit, shadowy, morose monastery on a hill-top: because nothing ever went wrong from venturing into a creepy locale such as that. Once there, he encourages the group to partake in a game of Truth or Dare, except this time – *gasps* – there’s a twist: the game is real. A demon starts to stalk our oblivious jocks and coquettish ingénues, appearing to them through what can only be described as a creepily uncanny Jack Nicholson grin, taunting them to choose either truth or dare: you pick, you do what is asked of you, or you die.
Yeah, sure, my mocking tone doesn’t really inspire a lot of confidence. But genuinely, the set-up was interesting, for what could have been an experience akin to a John Hughes film on horror hallucinogens. Unfortunately, what we get instead is a film firing on all cliché cylinders, delivering the usual sexual/relationship drama – see Knock Knock and Wish Upon for two cases in point – that misses the mark entirely, inducing innumerable eye-rolls. The core dilemma – the love triangle that pops up out of nowhere between best friends Olivia and Markie, and Markie’s puppy-eyed boyfriend Lucas – is so confusingly handled, at odds with the entire premise of the plot, that I wondered why it even needed to be in there. More than likely, it was to give an excuse to serve up an uproariously sporadic sex scene that will delight any audience member with a fetish for “The Nicholson creep-face”.
It doesn’t help that the cast is forced to deliver material that takes it all way too seriously. Lucy Hale is dumped with a ton of exposition, somehow understanding the precise nature of the group’s situation, as soon as it takes a different turn: she’s the horror film equivalent to Claire Balding, commentating on the action and telling us exactly what we need to know, when we need to know it. Furthermore, Posey, Beane and co. are saddled with stereotypes that don’t offer much meat for them to chew on: save for a rather surprising and unexpectedly poignant sub-plot involving Ronnie and his closeted fear of coming out to his Dad (Tom Choi), you’ll be able to call out each character arc from what you’ve seen time and time again.
Furthermore, tonally, the film is all over the place, like a drunk university fresher on a merry-go-round. From a woefully misjudged plot point involving Markie’s recently deceased father, to the chuckled responses of the group to the shocking death of an acquaintance, Truth or Dare never settles into a steady, acceptable rhythm, its narrative oscillating between melancholic blues and the upbeat, high-octane anthems of its almost comical horror sequences.
Sure, DP Jacques Jouffret gives the film a kinetic, unstable feel that helps amplify the life-or-death nature of the game. Plus there are a couple of memorable sequences that do inject some tension into proceedings, such as a well-paced moment early on involving a hammer that, along with Lynne Ramsay’s recent You Were Never Really Here, will satisfy fans of that tool meeting flesh.
However, it’s clear that Truth or Dare was never going to work on a serious level: it needed Final Destination levels of creativity. But that just doesn’t come through here: Wadlow forgets to have fun with the film’s dopey set-up, pulling us along like a parent that forgot that half the fun of being a child is doing stupid things that you’ll regret. We get to see none of that play out. Truth: aside from a few brief, thrilling sparks, Truth or Dare is a smouldering, smothered failure. Dare: go see John Krasinski’s terrifying A Quiet Place instead, I dare you not to recognise its genius in comparison.