Despite its technical issues – there are so many I don’t know how the film gets up in the morning – the overwhelming problem with Truth or Dare (2018) is actually a problem with the game itself. The aspect of choice can’t sustain the horror, and indeed doesn’t try: at one point, the evil entity starts denying the contestants the ability to pick “truth” because “that’s not how this game works.” That’s actually the only rule this game has. Horror needs rules because you can’t be afraid of a monster that can do anything. It’s scary because of what it can’t do: the monster in It Follows can’t do anything but slowly walk towards you. That’s creepy. The moment it can do whatever a filmmaker wants is the moment it becomes a series of written conveniences based on the desire to open strong on Friday to some dumb teenagers and forget about it. It’s the moment it becomes Truth or Dare.
Horror films come into this world aping each other. But rarely have I seen one do it with the easy ambivalence of an obviously guilty child denying where the cookies went: this is Truth or Dare, sauntering into theaters with crumbs of It Follows all over its chubby cheeks. Whole scenes are reused with brutal precision for this new film: it’s cannibalistic. Yet the concept of a monster passed to other people so that they can delay being chased by it works so much better when it’s passed through sex. That’s the genre taking a good look at itself. Truth or Dare, at least the fifth film with that exact name, is wallowing in convention rather than reapplying it, hoping you’ll forgive it for not having any mirrors to see itself in while hiding the hammer that smashed them behind its back.
For example, this movie would obviously be superior as a gristly dark comedy with Final Destination-style fatalities. But it wants to be PG-13 for its target demographic, no matter how typical that makes it. It’s self-harming for money. In a world where Deadpool and It (2017) are smash hits, this would seem to be an error, but of course the box office has stupidity’s back (Truth or Dare grossed thirty times its production budget).
The film’s villain is an intangible demon that you can only see when it’s your turn to play truth or dare. It takes the form of people in the room but with a smile stretched into its face like a photo manipulated on Kai’s Power Goo, a computer program from the 90s that was essentially just a photo smudging tool. Don’t worry, Truth or Dare acknowledges the modern equivalent: “They look like a Snapchat filter!” someone says. Well yes, they do, but I didn’t think that was something you’d really want to point out.
After it asks you the question, the individual assignment becomes something personally incriminating, or based on the poor choices of its recipient. This is the film’s one good idea. If only it could have realized it! For instance, Olivia (Lucy Hale), the film’s notorious virgin do-gooder and clear candidate for last girl standing, has to admit that her crazy best friend (Violett Beane) cheated on her boyfriend (Tyler Posey) for “truth,” and have sex with that boyfriend for “dare.” This exposes not only the fragility of their relationship but also the contradiction of Olivia’s good nature: she wants to have sex with that guy. There is nothing inherent about this concept that would prevent it from working but nothing inherent in this filmmaking that gives it any chance of working at all.
The script is diabolically dumb. The entity will “dare” someone to tell the truth about something, as though that’s clever and not just baffling. It dares Brad (Hayden Szeto) to come out as gay to his policeman father, after which he feels relieved. There’s a lot of gay panic in Truth or Dare, including a reluctant male-on-male lap-dance and awkward kissing (the main screenwriter, Michael Reisz, seems motivated to depict homosexuality but is ill-equipped to do so in any way but in a panic). A camp counselor demon that haunts children in order to force them to do difficult things to improve their lives would be so much better! Another boy (Sam Lerner) is dared to show his “business” at a party, something this character would easily do without being baited by a ghost, but then circumstances prevent him from completing his mission, which is fatal. How did the demon know it would claim his life by daring him to do something he would do anyway? It’s almost like the film was written to sloppily connect scenes of ambiguous carnage that look good in a trailer.
Oh yes, the ghost is from Mexico, which is treated with the kind of insincerity that foreign countries more often get in low-rent comedies. Yuppie kids think the entire country is their bar, they desecrate a grave, and a leather-faced mute woman writes them the explanation for the entire film in absurd capital English letters with a sharpie.
But the weirdest thing about Truth or Dare is how it seems almost parental in its assessment of all these ambiguous jerks. It clearly hopes that you’ll feel sympathy for them – even the skirt-chaser that shouts “no homo” whenever a guy comes within touching distance is portrayed as mostly harmless – but also brutalizes them to teach a lesson. The aptness of these punishments is what makes them so awkward. When a heavy-drinking girl (I honestly can’t tell her face apart among the cast list) is forced to walk along her roof drinking a whole bottle of vodka, I was reminded of a parent that gives their kid a cigarette to teach them how awful they taste. The boy whose only trait is his homosexuality comes out to a father who is loving and understanding, just as a dad would hope to be portrayed. The bickering friends are guided by the plot to appreciate each other as by a supportive parental referee between two hormonal bimbos, but do so to the exclusion of all humanity, as a parent cares more for their child than a thousand others combined. The kids act like misguided high schoolers during their last summer break before splitting up, dealing with puberty and fighting over boys, yet they’re supposed to be graduating from college, at an age when you’re supposed to have some things figured out and are at least allowed to see R-rated movies. Why not just make the kids the targeted age?
I have seen recent films with less sympathy for its characters (Wish Upon) and more contempt for its villain (The Bye Bye Man). But Truth or Dare is worst of the three for it: it is elevated by safeness above being funny. It is merely drudgery. It offers nothing new to a tired formula and squanders the possibility of simply eviscerating some assholes for a little Friday night fun: the movie begs for Final Destination-style fatalities. They go to Mexico for five minutes no fewer than five times, with the same fixed shot of the sign at the border to remind us; if the two best friends broke up one more time over a game that they know is playing them then I’d have done something rather un-parental about it. The movie is less provocative than actually playing Spin the Bottle, and easily half as dangerous.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Michael Reisz (screenplay and story)
Jillian Jacobs (screenplay)
Chris Roach (screenplay)
Jeff Wadlow (screenplay)
|Olivia Barron||Lucy Hale|
|Lucas Moreno||Tyler Posey|
|Markie Cameron||Violett Beane|
|Brad Chang||Hayden Szeto|
|Carter/Sam Meehan||Landon Liboiron|
|Tyson Curran||Nolan Gerard Funk|
|Penelope Amari||Sophia Taylor Ali|