Games are meant to be fun. If they aren’t, then they automatically become not worth the time and effort required to play them. From the producers of Get Out and Happy Death Day comes a film lacking in Get Out’s social commentary and Happy Death Day’s irreverent, campy carnage: Truth or Dare. As you guessed, it revolves around a seemingly innocuous game of truth or dare. Truth or Dare promises originality and never ends up delivering on its lie, but does deliver on a lack of daring directing.
This is just par for the course in this unelevated children’s game-based horror film. It is as basic as it sounds, despite the writers of the film desperately throwing in plot devices and one-line plot hole-filling dialogue to make a cohesive and compelling story. The story centers around some college students who go to another country (Mexico) for spring break and think it is a good idea to follow a complete stranger to an unknown location. Once they arrive at this location, a crumbling church, they actually decide to stay, acting like they’ve never seen the beginning of a single horror film in their soon-to-be-short lives. This is only the start of some of the bad decisions in the film.
With a team of four writers, this film suffered from too many cooks. Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz, Christopher Roach, and Jeff Wadlow (who is also the director) each had a hand in the screenplay, but you wouldn’t guess it by how formulaic the story feels. There is an evil entity/chaos demon forcing the group of college students to play truth or dare. Like any limitlessly powerful, supernatural entity, the villain of this film is everywhere. Since the demon is omnipotent and omnipresent, the film fails to establish a balance between the feeling of dread and glimmers of hope. In any horror-survival film, hope is the only difference between a story that is pure torture porn and a slasher story with a beatable baddie. Like the film’s story, the film itself proves early on that there is no salvation to be had for anyone involved or watching this film.
One of the worst trending features of the horror genre is focusing on scares and using them cheaply to compensate for a fragmented story. Truth or Dare focuses on a simple game most of us have played and then haphazardly throws in some Mexican folklore, religious iconography and sexual assault hoping at least one of those themes and ideas will stick. Like blood being splattered on the wall, the story doesn’t stick together but instead is turned into a spread out, dripping mess of nonsensical plot information that is introduced at the last minute to give the illusion of planning.
The film comes off like a studio executive brainstorming session where you shout out any idea that comes into your head. “What if truth or dare took a darker turn?” they would say. Then someone would suggest a spring break Mexican demon as the villain. Another person would say it should take place in a dilapidated church. Then so on, and so forth until they stumble into what we now know as Truth or Dare. If this pattern continues, my prediction for future films would be a game of spin the bottle that turns into a Russian roulette-type murder machine. Or how about a game of seven minutes in heaven where two people must enter a closet for a seven-minute fight to the death where only one person can emerge from the closet only after sending the other person to “heaven”. (Side note: please don’t make these films)
At this point, the only thing that can salvage a film with a weak story would be solid scares that keep us on edge long enough to not pay close attention to the deteriorating plot. Director Jeff Wadlow brings his experience in both directing horror genre and action genre films, but only one of them actually helps the film in a positive way. His previous horror effort (Cry Wolf) suffers from the same type of convoluted story that brought down Truth or Dare. His experience with action films helped Truth or Dare by giving the film an energetic pace and a mostly compelling thriller tone. The film feels as nonstop as a Final Destination one where the audience is actively engaged in who is going to die next and how. Delivering a scare is as important as setting it up, and Wadlow sets up every scare perfectly. The problem is that the build-up Wadlow provides almost never has a satisfying pay-off since ever scare is a cheap jump-scare. The only genuinely eerie element of the film comes in the form of demon and the creepy, photoshop-stretched smile it has whenever it inhabits a person.
When a story is a mess, the characters in it tend to follow suit, and here is one of the few times Truth or Dare has consistency. The characters are flat, two-dimensional character types that never receive any form of depth, no matter how many tragic backstories are thrown at them. There is nothing in any single character for the audience to get emotionally invested, and when that happens, every character is expendable. It also didn’t help that the cast consists of the flavor of the month TV actors from popular young adult shows, like Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars), Tyler Posey (Teen Wolf), and Violett Beane (The Flash). In their defense, they weren’t given much to work with or enough time to develop compelling characters that they would have had in a television show. What they should have given us was drama, but what we ended up receiving was closer to melodrama. Truth or Dare thought it was up for the challenge of a real game, but ended us losing shortly after it started playing.