You can see in the early negative response to Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare how quickly the public perception of a purveyor of genre films like Blumhouse Productions can be altered by one major critical and financial success. That film is, of course, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and people have now come to expect Peele’s same thoughtfulness and genre chops to be represented in every film released by Uber-Producer Jason Blum. But, as it is with all genre labels — especially ones with distribution deals like Blumhouse’s — the schlock doesn’t totally stop (one wonders where this reaction was to the Insidious film released earlier this year, or Jigsaw last year).
And it’s a bit sad, because this overwhelmingly negative reaction is burying Truth or Dare, a deeply amusing time at the movies, as it’s the kind of PG-13 scare-free drek that knows what it is and what it wants to be, and provides you with ample reasons to laugh and enjoy yourself throughout it’s runtime. I don’t buy the argument that it’s not in on the joke — after all, a shit-eating grin is what’s used to denote possession by the demon behind the game in the film — and it’s surprisingly well-structured to boot.
Truth or Dare is about– what else? — a possessed game of Truth or Dare, first played in a haunted church by a group of Spring Breakers on vacation in Mexico (yes, it is vaguely racist), that follows the college kids back to the US and begins wrecking havoc on their lives. The gang is headed up by Olivia (Lucy Hale), who is manipulated by her best friend Markie (Violet Beane) into coming along instead of doing her planned stint at Habitat, and it’s Olivia’s attraction to a boy named Carter (Landon Liboiron) that she meets at a Tijuana bar that leads the group to the fated place. He soon reveals that he was only leading the group there to play the game because he’s “okay with strangers dying if it means that [he] gets to live.” Soon after they get back to the US, voices begin calling out to them to continue playing the game, and occasionally the kids witness visions of creepily smiling people, which force them into making the choice.
Don’t do the dare, you die, as illustrated by the pool-table suicide of a frat boy (Sam Lerner) who doesn’t want to show his dick to a bar. Don’t tell the truth, you die, like a prescription-forging pre-med (Nolan Gerald Funk) in the middle of his admission interview. Only choose truth? The game will force you to do a dare. So, Olivia and company have to try and track down the origins of the demon that’s haunting them and also find Carter, who holds the key to all of this.
Wadlow’s film shares a lot of similarities to David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, with regards to the demon taking the physical form of the protagonist’s friends and in the concept of passing the game along in order to avoid death, but it doesn’t have Mitchell’s impeccable style and photography to smooth over the cracks in the characterization and storytelling (I was one of the people who didn’t find that film particularly scary either). Instead, what it does have is a stable of goofy actors plucked straight from the CW and MTV to recite the trashy dialogue with the kind of earnest aplomb reserved for movies like this, and they’re rewarded with decent arcs: Details and moments given in the first few minutes of the film come back to roost later on, and the film doesn’t hesitate to take these characters, once established, to the darkest possible corners of their own existence. Well, while still being PG-13 friendly, of course. The best example of this comes from Markie, who has been struggling with her father’s suicide, and is haunted by her memories of him — or, more accurately, a single memory of him that she keeps on her iPhone that we see a ton. This tragedy informs every aspect of her character, and is dug in on throughout the store, even if it ultimately may lack cathartic value given the anti-climactic ending.
However, there’s a bunch of lovely unintentional and intentional humor tossed in to make the whole experience worthwhile. Characters actually say lines like “the whole thing just looked like a Snapchat filter” when referencing the visions that the Demon gives them, and there’s some tremendously awkward sex that happens between two of the ensemble in the middle of the second act that’s worthy of whatever laughs it gets. But, most importantly, there’s the grin, which comes back again and again and never failed to make some people in my audience chuckle, especially when paired with the demon speech that follows (think a lobotomized version of Pazuzu from The Exorcist).
There’s a Rube Goldberg style to the kills that’s a bit endearing (though never as polished as the ones in the Final Destination series) and work well in accompaniment with what action scenes there are, such as one where a grieving friend is forced to walk around the edges of her roof while chugging a bottle of vodka. It’s a hoot and half anyways, and I imagine you’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of it if you’re willing to compromise with it.
Truth or Dare is the kind of film Blumhouse has always made and always managed to make entertaining, and I hope people don’t lose sight of that. They’re in the business of taking cheap risks — much like Get Out was — and that doesn’t always lead to the same gold every time. It does, however, value strange concepts, bizarre execution, and entertainment. Truth or Dare has those qualities in spades.