I spent five weeks this year teaching high school students how to produce a short horror film. It was an advanced filmmaking class for students who already spent a semester learning how to make web videos. Horror, being my critical specialty, was a perfect match for the students. They were taken on a whirlwind tour of the history of horror, as well as the tropes and technical elements that make up much of the genre.
The big thing I stressed with them was high concept stories. The best horror stems from a simple idea told well. A twist ending might add a wrinkle to the proceedings, but (with few exceptions) the best horror is high concept--simple ideas that are easily told and marketed. The Exorcist, The Shining, Ring, Frankenstein, even more modern hits like Saw and Teeth have simple stories that can be explained in one or two sentences and leave a big impact.
Truth or Dare cannot be faulted on concept. The film is what it says it is: a horror film about truth or dare. Specifically, a group of college students on spring break get roped into a game of truth or dare. That game has an unexpected supernatural component. The players must continue playing as long as they live. If they try not to play, they die. If they lie when they choose truth, they die. If the fail to complete a dare or chicken out, they die.
We've seen this story before in cinema. It's the cursed game or cursed artifact. It goes back to some of the earliest horror films, like Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen's The Golem from 1915. More recently, you see this concept unfold in The Ring, Hellraiser, Cabin in the Woods, and countless others. Shoot, it's not even limited to horror, as even the Jumanji remake was a critical and commercial success playing off the same tropes.
Truth or Dare is the horror film equipment of playing tee-ball and still managing to strike out. The film is given every advantage to succeed and still falls flat. A horror film with a concept this simple needs strong characters and a clear artistic voice. Truth or Dare has neither.
I refuse to fault the actors for the film's failings. The cast actually does very good work with some very bad dialogue. Their struggle comes from poorly written characters. It's like someone took a fan fiction character generator and hit enter until they reached seven characters. There's a humanitarian girl and a selfish guy. There's a drunk girl and a horny guy. There's a blonde girl and a handsome guy. The core group is rounded out with a gay guy.
It's gets worse. Each character's story is just as bland. The humanitarian girl wants to save everyone. The selfish guy only cares about himself. The drunk girl drinks around the clock. The horny guy tries to sleep with anything that has a pulse. The blonde girl and handsome guy are dating but are also desired by everyone they meet. And the gay guy is straight passing except for not being out to his parents. That last story could just as easily be that a guy switched majors and didn't tell his parents, or got a tattoo and didn't tell his parents for all that poor excuse for character development was used.
The only consistent artistic quality to Truth or Dare is the Grinch-like grins you might have seen in the marketing. Faces of extras, photographs, reflections, and videos are stretched into that menacing v-shaped smile whenever the game is going to continue. Otherwise, there's no rhyme or reason to the warnings. If the game can burn "truth or dare?" into a character's arm, why does it require text messages or whispers to communicate most of the time? If the evil game can unleash all hell to force participation, why start with a note? If the film escalated to the more extreme methods, it could work, but it's horribly inconsistent with how powerful the game actually is.
There are three scenes that actually work as successful horror in the film. The opening scene is genuinely shocking and hints at what's should come (but never really does) in the rest of the film. A young woman sneaks into shop to buy cigarettes, but is confronted with a round of "truth or dare" instead. This results in her grabbing a bottle of lighter fluid and setting a random person in the store on fire, crying and apologizing before the film jumps to the credits. That, right there, is how the whole film could have played out. If you want to make a brutal horror film and really lean into the shock value, then lean in. Don't take half measures and pretend you have something really important to say when your characters are so dull the audience will struggle to remember who they are if they aren't onscreen.
One other game actually plays out to this level and--surprise!--it's the one that was used in all the marketing. A drunk guy at a bar is challenged to play "truth or dare." He agrees to a dare that will have disastrous consequences no matter how it plays out. It's the one moment in the main plot of Truth or Dare that actually demonstrates how terrifying this cursed game actually is for the core group of characters. The other sequences are just too silly or convoluted--less sensical than the machinations of the Final Destination series--to feel anywhere as menacing at this one brief scene.
The last truly successful scene is the final scene, and it finally shows of some sense of continuity. Without going into spoilers, a brief source of conflict from the beginning of the film is circled back to for an especially cruel twist on beating a cursed game. It's nothing new--high concept horror rarely is--but it's smooth and chilling. It's actual quite remarkable that a film that misses out on so many critical beats of an enjoyable horror narrative manages to wrap up in such a clean and disturbing way.
Do not take those three scenes as a sign that I'm recommending this film. I am not. About six minutes of footage in a feature length film is not enough to justify watching something that is otherwise so dull and poorly conceived for an experienced horror fan.
I have immense respect for the Blumhouse Productions. They've found major success in the low-budget horror market and taken chances on many films that probably wouldn't have been made or distributed to a wide market without them. It's an opening in the film business that can lead to years of success.
However, low-budget horror has a bad reputation for a reason. Once you start cranking them out like a machine, you're bound to have some faulty pictures make it to market. Truth or Dare is a rare miss from the company that helped bring out the Paranormal Activity series*, The Purge Series, the Insidious series, and even helped with Academy Award-winning film Get Out.
What I will say is, like all horror, I do believe there is an audience for Truth or Dare. I think there are younger fans who perhaps aren't as old and jaded as I who will find novelty in the film's approach to this story. I've forgotten more horror films than most people will ever see that I thought were much better than their reputation suggested. The ones I do remember (like FearDotCom) are pretty objectively bad, but worked wonders for me at that point in time.
I am a horror fan, but I am not the sole arbiter of the genre and that's a great thing. My utter disappointment in the approach to such a slam-dunk idea as a cursed game of truth or dare is partly fed by an obsession with school-set South Korean horror (they are the masters of cursed children's games--hunt down the Wishing Corridors series for a starting point) and the intersection of new media with traditional cinematic tropes (think about how many classic films would no longer work with cellphones and computers and how modern filmmakers find ways to reinvent classic cinematic tropes). Without that context (nay, extensive obsessive research), I might have found more to appreciate in this. I still wouldn't rush out to buy this sight unseen, but I wouldn't turn it off if it started streaming or aired on a cable channel in the future.
Truth or Dare (Director's Cut) is currently available for digital rental or purchase on sites like Amazon.
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*Full disclosure: I hate the Paranormal Activity series. I think they're dull boring films where nothing happens until the final scene. They were, however, money-making machines and at least made cursory attempts at character, plot, nuance, and other technical elements that make films films. That's more than I can say for Truth or Dare.