In director Jeff Wadlow’s “Truth or Dare,” a group of friends on spring break gets pulled into a lethal game of truth or dare. The movie had the potential to turn a juvenile game into something twisted and terrifying; instead, it feels incredibly childish. The stilted acting and shallow relationships, along with the relationship drama that seems equally important to the characters as the threat of death, are reminiscent of a Disney Channel-style horror flick. One scene steps beyond teen drama towards educational children’s television, when a character reads menacingly from a piece of paper, “Demons can possess people, places, even ideas.” I felt transported back to fifth-grade grammar class—demons, it seems, can possess nouns.
The movie makes an effort to hit not just on every classic horror movie trope, but also on every non-horror-related cliché possible, starting with the characters themselves. There is Ronnie (Sam Lerner), the completely clueless misogynist who tags along with the group in hopes of getting laid: He provides comic relief and is obviously introduced to serve as the first kill. There is Tyson (Noland Gerard Funk), the wealthy, perfectly-groomed, overconfident boy with no morals who sells fake prescriptions and only cares about getting into medical school. His perpetually drunk, doting girlfriend Penelope (Sophia Ali), is perhaps the most interesting character, as her alcoholism is at least surprising, but even that remains unexplored. There is Brad (Hayden Szeto), the problem-solving, likeable boy who is not yet out to his policeman father. And then of course, there are the two best friends Olivia (Lucy Hale) and Markie (Violette Beane)—who supposedly mean the world to each other despite constantly fighting—and the quiet, brooding boy they are both in love with, Lucas (Tyler Posey). The clichés unfortunately extend past the characters into the writing and score. It is hard to take a movie seriously when someone unironically says, “We can’t change the past but we can still have a future.” The soundtrack also screams, “This is a horror movie,” loud and off-putting enough to be grating but not at all scary—an unexplained creepy laugh echoes even before the end of the opening credits.
At times, the stereotypes and attempts at drama move beyond the ineffective and toward the actively offensive. For instance, the friends begin their game of truth or dare in Mexico, and the demon associated with the game follows them back to the United States. It is possible, of course, that Mexico was just the natural setting for a spring break trip. But after the fifth slow pan across the green Mexican border sign, the shot begins to seem not just repetitive but also slightly pointed—of course the unfamiliar dark magic, demons, abandoned buildings, and gruesome ancient rituals are from another country.
The script shows a similar lack of sensitivity. In another scene, Olivia is dared to sleep with Lucas, Markie’s boyfriend. The pair’s feelings for each other have been obvious since the beginning of the movie, but they have not acted on them out of concern for Markie. As Lucas begins to passionately kiss Olivia, she stops him, fearing that he is faking his passion, complaining that he has to have sex for the sake of the game. “You have to. I don’t,” he replies, in a response that is somehow framed as romantic. In a scene meant to be the pinnacle of Olivia and Lucas’s relationship, this language unnecessarily and uncomfortably recalls issues of sexual consent. This awkward and inconsiderate writing unfortunately represents a larger trend in the film.
Wadlow cannot quite seem to make up his mind about what sort of horror movie he wants “Truth or Dare” to be. It is not particularly gory, and having the characters’ faces transform into what the movie itself acknowledges looks like “a messed up Snapchat filter” before they die dulls the impact of their deaths. The plot sets the movie up to be a psychological thriller, a seventh-grade game gone wrong, but the inner workings of the characters and the demon are not particularly interesting and the truths and dares laid out not particularly disturbing. The movie could have made good use of comedic horror—making it almost enjoyable to watch, or at least to make fun of, if not for the perpetual references to rape and suicide, which felt unemotional, out of place, and unnecessary, making it instead harder to laugh at the characters without feeling guilty.
The lack of emotion in general is almost impressive. It is quite a feat, for example, to take the emotion out of a scene depicting a son as he is forced to hold his own father at gunpoint. The characters do not grieve at all as one after another of their friends die, and Olivia, the protagonist, barely reacts when her friend literally takes a bullet for her.
The one possible redeeming feature is the concept. The idea of truth or dare—a game that is slightly sadistic even in its relatively innocent seventh-grade iteration—turned deadly and inescapable is certainly interesting. But the plot of the movie gets a little ridiculous as time goes on, and when the demon—in a move that has been annoying seventh-graders for centuries—dares someone to tell the truth, it is hard not to groan. One could also read the film, albeit generously, as a critique on social media, between the main characters’ obsession with various social media platforms, the comparison of their possessed faces to a grotesque Snapchat filter, and the demons occasional communication over social media. But even then its point is unoriginal and the moral does not justify the poor execution. The twist ending is the most compelling part of the movie, equally enjoyable both because it is surprising and because it means that the movie is finally over.
—Staff writer Yael M. Saiger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.