Movies written by artificial intelligence sound like an assault on human creativity, but when four people can write something as generic and bland as Truth or Dare, I say welcome to our robot overlords. Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf, Kick-Ass 2), collaborating with screenwriters Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz and Christopher Roach, concoct a horror movie around the concept of truth or dare that is precisely what you expect, with one exception: there isn’t one scary moment in it. Perhaps that’s why Blumhouse’s namesake producer has taken ownership of the film on posters and in advertising, heralding the latest release from the person responsible for Happy Death Day and Get Out, but the only favorable byproduct of conjuring this throughline in moviegoers’ minds is making the former qualitatively look like the latter in comparison to how awful Truth or Dare actually is.
Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars) plays Olivia, a college student lured away from a Spring Break trip filled with Habitat For Humanity-style servitude to go on a booze-filled south-of-the-border bacchanalian with her best friend Markie (Violett Beane, The Flash), Markie’s boyfriend Lucas (Tyler Posey, Teen Wolf) and a few other housemates and friends. Lured to an abandoned church by a charming reveler named Carter (Landon Liboiron, Hemlock Grove), Olivia and her pals agree to play truth or dare, only to learn that the stakes of the game are much more serious than they imagined: the game never ends, and if they refuse to participate, they die.
Returning from holiday, Olivia, Markie and the rest resume their daily lives, only for truth or dare to disrupt their daily routines, and later, their relationships with one another. But after “players” start dying, either by following through on deadly dares or succumbing to evil forces that take revenge when they refuse, the survivors race into action to figure out not just why they’ve been forced to participate in this sick game, but what if any way they can “win” it, or in lieu of that, escape without paying the ultimate price.
I make fun up top of Happy Death Day, but as a high-concept pop-horror film, it’s fun enough for the right audience – namely, teenagers, or adults who aren’t paying especially close attention. Conversely, the failings of Truth or Dare aren’t in its focus (as characters or an audience) on teens and young twentysomethings, but in conceiving a one-dimensional idea – I mean, less than a single-sentence pitch – and then building it out with demonic possessions a preposterous overabundance of life-wrecking revelations that naturally all get dredged up once people have to, as the saying goes, “stop being polite and start getting real.” Effectively, the premise works like some Frankensteinian combination of The Ring and Final Destination, driven by Mr. Boogie from Sinister (or if you’re being generous, one of the Deadites from Evil Dead II), where people die in a rapid succession, unveil hidden truths that are forgotten after a scene, and work towards a solution that unleashes their problem onto a whole lot more undeserving people.
Despite being saddled with dialogue that starts with “since my dad took his life…,” Beane is the standout among the film’s cast, gamely struggling through the emotional ups and downs of learning truths about her BFF, her boyfriend and yeah, her suicidal father that would qualify as devastating, I guess, if you had no idea how often the feelings of college seniors change about one another, and themselves. Hale does her best as Olivia, a principled do-gooder challenged with whether or not to reveal hurtful information (and eventually, to hurt others), but with all respect to Posey as the guy these women are sorta fighting over, she and Beane outclass the remainder of their co-stars even while waiting for their turn to play the game. That said, Edge of Seventeen’s Hayden Szeto steals just about every scene in which he appears as Brad, a sweet, quick-witted kid who’s forced to come out to his cop father; the movie unfortunately robs audiences of what could have been a legitimately emotional moment (the scene happens off camera), but Szeto skillfully turns what would have otherwise been a crass dramatic detail into the film’s one instance of actual empathy.
As seen in ads for the film, the faces of the players (and occasionally, those around them) contort into a twisted Joker’s grin that one supposes is meant to echo the lazy, derivative sketch of the demon driving the game, but the ubiquitous CGI flourish is a wrong instinct on two counts: first, it looks more like Soundgarden’s music video for “Black Hole Sun” than the fiendish manipulation of an unseen evil force, and second, it moves their expression in the exact wrong direction. I suspect that more people will be frowning than smiling in response to Truth or Dare – certainly I and those around me were.