By: Steve Pulaski
Faithful readers of my reviews will know, at least once a year, I'm good for defending a schlocky, low-rent horror film for which both film critics and the populous do not bother cutting any slack. I felt like I was the lone defender for The Bye Bye Man, The Gallows, and Wish Upon over the past several years and still feel those films, operating on their respective scales, effectively do what they intended in a successful manner. Unfortunately, with that in mind, Blumhouse's Truth or Dare will have to find someone else to deem its lackluster and occasionally pitiful attempts at teen-targeted horror successful.
The film revolves around Olivia (Lucy Hale), who is suckered into ditching a spring break mission trip by her bestie Markie (Violett Beane), who instead suggests she come to Mexico with her and a group of friends. Olivia concedes and winds up talking with a gentleman (Landon Liboiron) at the bar, who invites them to explore cavernous ruins. Once there, he suggests they play truth or dare, and the game is your average, run-of-the-mill hormone-influenced bout of personal revelations mixed with full-frontal nudity and "bi-curious" escapes. Things turn rather strange, however, when Olivia's new friend reveals his true intentions upon being "truthed" to do so. He informs her that they are now roped into a demonic game of truth or dare, the likes of which will distort their realities by way of spirits who will punish them with death if they fail to comply. The game bops from each of the seven people in the order they were asked the fateful question while in the ruins.
The game makes the person whose turn it is see visions of twisted, smiling individuals offering them the choice before letting them know their challenge. In order to fit well into the guidelines of the dreaded PG-13 rating, the four screenwriters (Michael Reisz, Jillian Jacobs, Chris Roach, and director Jeff Wadlow), these demands are largely kept mild in both a violent and dramatic sense. A hand is broken, confessions are made at inopportune times, and friendships are put to the test all in true Degrassi fashion, only this time, the infrequent F-bomb is uttered and the most soap opera of sex scenes occurs between a woman and not-her-boyfriend. Ho ho.
On top of the cursed mythology of the "truth or dare" game at hand being complete folderol the more it's described, the four writers feel greatly hindered by the inability to take the material further. Again, most of the "dares" feel perfunctory and the "truths" offer disjointed exposition that doesn't come close to humanizing this onslaught of faceless characters. With that in mind, Nolan Gerard Funk's Tyson is arguably the film's best character. A med-student hopeful with a sardonic, almost nihilistic personality and a talent for soliciting fake prescriptions to undergrads, Tyson livens up the dynamic of a petty bunch, but let's just say, he's not very good at the game overall to make his presence more than a footnote in the end.
Furthermore, the film's desire to appeal to the after-school crowd isn't an inherent negative as Blumhouse proved when they released Happy Death Day last October, a mostly solid Groundhog Day/slasher hybrid, but it is when you have a premise that begs you to raise the stakes with every passing dare. The "truth or dare" concept as the basis of a horror film is a wobbly one at best, in the sense that you'll either have people horrified with the disquieting nature of the events or howling at the unintentional comedy of it all. Truth or Dare is more successful at the former, if I have to make a choice between the two reactions, but it's more successful at breeding tedium over the course of 100 minutes, a good many of them irksome.
I can get behind the film's Final Destination spirit, if only because I'm still deprived of a sixth installment from that franchise, and I can support a wildly successful studio, run by an immensely smart producer who has gifted audiences Get Out, The Purge series, both Creep films, Paranormal Activity, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and The Town That Dreaded Sundown among many other gems. What I can't get behind is Blumhouse's efforts to place their branding front and center on a film unworthy of their seal of approval. Unlike the carefully calculated projects that propelled them to being one of the primary, if not the primary, powerhouse for horror and original properties,Blumhouse's Truth or Dare is derivative to the point of being frustrating and repetitive as if to distract from the constraints of its rating.
Lastly, the film's director, Jeff Wadlow, once again serves as one of the most interesting details on a film he helmed. Wadlow's career got a big leap forward when he was awarded the $1 million prize at the 2002 Chrysler Million Dollar Film Competition for his short film. The money eventually led to Cry Wolf in 2005, which put him on the map as a director and led him to bigger projects likeKick-Ass 2. I'm always waiting to say Wadlow has lived up to this heartwarming origins story, and on that note, Truth or Dare disappoints on yet another level.