For a moment I thought I was back in the 1980s, as a giggling teenager, watching a PG-13 horror movie. And yet I was watching it with an adult perspective, noting how bloody dumb it was. From one lame gag to another, I understood how idiotic it was… and I was having a good time.
Cut to reality: the year is 2018 and I was watching Truth or Dare, the new teenage horror film from director Jeff Ludlow (Kick Ass 2, Never Back Down). It tells a cliché-riddled story of six friends spending their spring break in Mexico, where they play a hexed game of truth or dare and find themselves caught in a gnarly cycle of death with no option of passing. Should they choose truth, they must answer truthfully or die. Should they choose dare, they must complete the dare or die. Should they refuse their turn… yep, die! Die, Die, Die!
If you can imagine American Pie fused with Final Destination then you will get an idea of what to expect. It is – at first – an underwhelming supernatural take on the slasher genre that plays things safe and never indulges the audience with tasty morsels of gore. Most of the violence happens off camera and so we have to rely on the concept, the script and the performances to actually do all of the work (that’s a tough ask for a genre film such as this).
I can say without reservation that the first 20 minutes of the movie concerned me. The characters are introduced simplistically, each of them depicted as annoying and self-centred. I get no kick out of watching witless teenagers, played by some almost 30-year-old actors, being idiots, and so it was to my relief that the story eventually picked up its pace and became a familiar (almost comforting) exploit of a tried & true formula. As soon as the characters began to die, the mood in the cinema lifted and the fun began.
The premise isn’t far removed from the 2016 film Nerve, starring Dave Franco and Emma Roberts, except that Truth or Dare has a supernatural component. And when you consider the aforementioned titles in this review, you will know whether or not this one is for you. Despite its hesitations with the violence and gore, the film develops into a surprisingly entertaining movie-going experience. It’s like being a grown adult faced with a jumping-castle. You know you shouldn’t, but you do, and once you’re in, you’re not in a rush to get out. For me, Truth or Dare brought up a nice bit of nostalgia for those holiday-themed slashers of the 1980s. If it hits its mark, perhaps we can look forward to Spin the Bottle, or even Chinese Whispers. I’m sure there’s a treasure-trove of party-game movies waiting to be told!
The Blumhouse production company has built its reputation with a never-ending stable of genre-pushing outings such as The Purge, Insidious and Paranormal Activity franchises (just to scratch the surface), and to be met with such a timid and cautious film is both unexpected and disappointing. It doesn’t deliver the scare-fest that people might expect, but for those willing to forgive its shortcomings, there’s a feast of cheesy goodness to be had regardless. The kills are predictable, the characters are two-dimensional, and the dialogue is as poxy as a daytime soap, and yet, once you accept all of this and embrace the spirit of the film, its charm is palpable. Much like the other recent Blumhouse “softie” Happy Death Day, the fun is found in the audience’s awareness of its misgivings.
The cast should be familiar to younger readers, with actress Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars) leading the charge. Her support includes Tyler Posey (Teen Wolf), Violett Beane (The Flash) and Landon Liboiron (Hemlock Grove). It is a youthful ensemble lifted straight out of television and pitted against the running time of a feature film. They might not be convincing anyone that they’re college-aged teenagers in Truth or Dare, but they do bring to the screen their good looks and teeny mannerisms.
The film’s biggest strength is the score. Composer Matthew Margeson (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Eddie The Eagle) has crafted an atmospheric soundscape that elevates the story and plays with the formulaic narrative nicely. It’s a far greater soundtrack than the movie deserves, and I suspect that director Ludlow knows it. Margeson also flirts with the tropes and injects a modest amount of jarring notes to help emphasise those trusty jump-scares.
The real mind-boggler is that it took four writers to bring this one to the screen, with three of them making the leap from television. Perhaps the lack of rounded characters or intelligent dialogue is the result of too many cooks in the kitchen; then again, maybe their collective minds are what made this nonsense (okay, let me say it one last time) fun. It is too sloppy to give a highly favourable critique and too harmless and frivolous to judge harshly. Whatever the case, Truth or Dare is a passable teen horror movie that will appeal to its targeted SnapChat-addicted audience… a crowd that will likely find the opinion of this middle-aged reviewer almost irrelevant.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★ ★☆☆
Truth or Dare is in Australian cinemas from April 12 and U.S. cinemas from April 13.