From the Archives: Truth or Dare review

From the Archives: Truth or Dare review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Blumhouse Productions has become synonymous with good horror. They’ve produced just about every solid mainstream horror entry over the past few years, including two of my favorites, Get Out and Happy Death Day. The company has become aware of their role as a purveyor of quality in the midst of a sort of critical reassessment of the genre. So much so that every single ad for Truth or Dare – sorry, Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare – invokes the titles of their most successful work, namely Get Out and Happy Death Day.

You’ll remember an earlier piece in which all of the Cinedelphia writers announced what their most anticipated film of 2018 would be, and mine was indeed Truth or Dare. I went so far as to say that my decision was made due to how thoroughly brilliant Happy Death Day was. Well, unfortunately, Truth or Dare is no Happy Death Day. It’s not bad, but it’s disappointing. Rather than being a hip subversion of the genre, it’s really just another entry in the teen screams canon. This is fine, but it’s a pretty big missed opportunity. Given the cool concept, this really could have been something special, but instead it’s just a shiny version of something we’ve seen countless times before.

The premise is simple: While on a spring break rager in Mexico, a group of friends are brought to an abandoned church by what appears to be an innocent fellow partygoer. There, they are coaxed into playing a game of truth or dare. It all seems like harmless fun at first as the handsome teens are made to share expositional secrets with one another (who are you secretly in love with?) or sexually charged dares (you, make out with her!). But upon returning home from their trip things start to get weird. It is discovered that the game itself is haunted, and now, under orders from a sentient disembodied voice or a hallucination of a spooky smiley face, the teens must continue to play truth or dare. The catch: if you don’t tell the truth, don’t do the dare, or outright refuse to play, you die.

It’s a cool setup for some creative deaths and some uncomfortable situations amongst our protagonists, but for the most part the conceit is squandered. A few solid chills here and there are swept under the rug in exchange for an irritating amount of unnecessary background information. One of the things that made Happy Death Day such a joy is that the supernatural element is not explained. It’s unneeded. It is also unneeded in Truth or Dare, and any time that we are made to sit through explanations of how the cursed game began and how it may be stopped, the film slams on the brakes. Doubly frustrating is how aggressively these expositional pieces refuse to adhere to the established internal logic. As such, the movie, while harmless and generally entertaining, forgets to be fun. And as the cliches pile up a nagging thought enters the mind: what is the point of all this?

The squad of teens at the center of the carnage all acquit themselves nicely enough, each fitting a pretty standard trope. There’s the good girl, the bad girl, the hunk, the party bro, and the barely existent expendables. One of these expendables takes the form of a closeted gay teen who, you guessed it, is dared by the game to come out to his domineering father. It’s a potentially interesting thread that is almost immediately abandoned in favor of racing to the finish line. It’s a shame, and it is one of the many missed opportunities in the script, which is a rewrite or two away from being something very cool.

In fact, most of the interpersonal revelations between the central group of teens have little to no stakes, despite being of the most sordid nature imaginable. Sure, they yell at one another, when secrets are revealed but it’s all almost immediately forgotten. It’s like this across the board. The kids don’t seem to care much when their friends die horribly, and the town that they live in barely seems to notice that teenaged bodies are piling up. Even the sole detective investigating the string of odd deaths doesn’t seem to care that much. At one point he dismisses a gun death as “just one of those crazy things kids do.” His function is not one of moving the plot forward, but rather as an after-the-fact bandage employed so that when audiences ask “what do the cops think of all this?” the movie can deflect and say “they were there, see?” Missed opportunities abound. And no, I don’t think that the logic needs to be flawless in a picture such as this one, but without any anchor in the real world, the horror elements are weightless. So instead of shocking, scary, suspenseful, or fun, Truth or Dare gives us a movie that could accurately be described as “kinda neat.”

As far as teen screamers go, you could certainly do much worse than Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare, but as evidenced by the horror output of the past few years, you could certainly do much better.

Truth or Dare opens in Philly theaters today.

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