Jeff Wadlow’s (“Never Back Down” & “Kick-Ass 2”) “Truth or Dare” is a film that has no one else to blame but itself for its shortcomings. With five screenwriters attempting to tell the same coherent story, “Truth or Dare” is unable to manifest something that is either campy enough to be enjoyable like that of a “Zombieland" or emotionally captivating enough to resemble something along the lines of “It Follows.” It could have gone in either direction, but not choosing a path to go in is the worst decision that could’ve been made by Wadlow and his writers.
Centering around the infamous juvenile game known as “Truth or Dare,” six college friends go to Mexico for spring break where they encounter a seemingly nonharmful and charming man who invites them to a local missionary for a good time. Being both ignorant and bored, the students follow him to this eerie and rundown monastery where he persuades them to play a game of “Truth or Dare,” but this is not the harmless game we know. Instead, these students learn that a demon has possessed the game and forces each one of them to play the most vilifying form of the game in which each of them confesses their deepest secrets and commit the most heinous of dares. The only catch is, if you don’t tell the truth or refuse to do the dare, you die.
A ridiculous and unoriginal plot, but one that showcases snippets of an idea that could’ve led to a masterpiece of genre filmmaking. What do I mean by that? Well, in summary, there are more than a few characters who have resonating moral dilemmas attached to them. For example, Brad (Hayden Szeto; “Edge of Seventeen”) is a gay kid with a homophobic father. Spoiler warning, I know, but the game eventually forces him to come out to his father. This same kind of legitimate anxieties are attached to the other characters, and it could have been used to extremitize these real-life emotional dreads and create a resonating message upon the idea of confronting the conflicts that arrive during our maturing phase of adulthood. Such as forgiving ourselves for our most prominent mistakes, admitting jealousy, recognizing our immaturity, and exposing our biggest secrets to those closest to us.
“Truth or Dare” could care less about those things, but noticing those fragments of moral disputes was charming to see, but also incredibly frustrating. It’s like watching a toddler attempting to walk in which he gets one step and then right as he’s about to take the second, he shits his pants and falls. Nonetheless, minus that one compliment, I can give the film, “Truth or Dare” is a laughable attempt at a horror film in which the supposedly frightening grins of the demon are anything but scary. Each time it arrives on the screen, I was riddled with laughter, and with a theatre to myself, I didn’t have to stifle any of my outbursts.
Each storyline presented follows the stigmas of horror in a formulaic fashion. From meeting a charming but deceiving person at the bar to the supernatural threat to the dumb college kids, it all seems so familiar, doesn’t it? Each character, like I said, has the potential to be something more than a label of human characteristics. They can be forced to play out the emotional dilemmas we fear most, like that of Ronnie (Sam Lerner) depicting the insecure “no-homo” male bravado style character that is attempting to get behind anything on two legs. Perhaps he’s playing on the wrong side of the fence though. What if he was a kid trying, like most college students do, to discover himself? What if the man he will become is someone who doesn't go after girls? What if he’s a man in the closet and doesn’t know it? Isn’t that a real fear that some of us must face? Don’t we all fear the social ramifications that will arrive if we concede to this rooted terror? These are the kind of mistakes made by Wadlow and his writers because this could have been the ground works to extending a slasher premise past its proverbially integral restrictions and create something worth one’s while.
These filmmakers follow in-line though, and we get a barrage of absurd death sequences that reference “Final Destination,” but lack the creativity and self-mockery of those films. One, in particular, involving Ronnie (Sam Lerner) is inherently comical, as a girl possessively dares him to show his junk to the surrounding attendees of a bar. After a few of the members of the crowd challenges his insecurity by shouting phrases like “seen it before” or “too small,” he refuses and turns towards a vertically standing pool cue with that dorky smile upon his face. I assume he intended to spear himself with the blunt rod, but instead, he turns around, slips on the eight ball, and snaps his neck on the edge of the neighboring table.
The fact that he turned around was neither suspenseful or terrifying, but unintentionally hilarious. A peculiar fact about that scene was the idea of how these students were sent their acquaintance's misfortune via text message, but even more puzzling was the fact that one of them watched it more than once with the facial expression of "look how funny this is." It begs the question; we’re the filmmakers attempting to be funny or satirical? Or was this merely accidental? I get that Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) is supposed to be the smug asshole (though the smugness is nowhere to be found) who disbelieves all of the hocus-pocus of the story, but that’s a bit morbid, isn’t it?
The direction and the performances are almost not worth mentioning. Each of them is immensely flawed by the cliche of the genre and the lack of investment from both the director and the cast. Both feel as if they’re playing their respective roles in assisting in manifesting a film to fit in with Blumhouse’s production line of nonsensically mistold moral horrors. (“The Purge,” “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious”) The TV made stars (Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, & Violett Beane) are still trying to make that transition to the big stage of filmmaking, and will have to continue searching for their breakout crossover role. Wadlow struggles to craft any scene with a smidgen of suspense or a sprinkle of fear. He showcases the fragmental beginnings of fascinating and potentially frightening moral conflicts but chooses to go the easy route instead of the one less traveled by.
Is “Truth or Dare” scary? I think I’ve provided my answer to this inquiry already. Whether you concur or not is up to you, but I’ll admit that I left my isolated screening quite startled. Not from the film itself, but from the creepy theatre manager who continued to interrupt my viewing and stare at me from the dimly lit entrance. On more than one occasion, I found myself peeking over my shoulder, curious as to if he was there just staring at me from afar, silently watching me. It was far more chilling than anything in the film, because it was real life. If only Wadlow had introduced those same authentic terrors, maybe the sketchy theatre employee wouldn't have been the scariest part of my experience. Perhaps he was dared to do it.