“The producer of Happy Death Day and Get Out invites you to play…”
So reads the poster tagline for the newest Blumhouse feature Truth or Dare, and it’s a pretty good one. It’s smart from a marketing standpoint because those films made a ton of money. But it’s also smart because Truth or Dare tries to follow in the stylistic footsteps of both those movies, combining Happy Death Day’s goofy premise with Get Out’s “topical horror” (I refuse to call it elevated).
The goofiness comes in the form of the titular game, which characters have to play or they will suffer some unlikely, Final Destination-esque death. Our primary players are Olivia (Lucy Hale) and her college-friends, who join fellow American Carter (Landon Liboiron) in an ill-advised game of Truth or Dare in an abandoned Mexican church. Upon returning to the States, the players find themselves randomly accosted by passers-by, who ask, a Joker-esque grin on their face, “Truth or dare?” The players must play, and play honestly, or die.
But while it wants to have fun with the cursed game conceit, Truth or Dare also wants to wrestle with heavier themes, including suicide and parental homophobia. Well, sort of. Really, it mines most of its tension out of a love triangle between Olivia, Olivia’s best friend Markie (Violett Beane), and Olivia’s best friend Markie’s boyfriend Lucas (Tyler Posey). That’s where the movie gets its scares too, as nearly every “truth” challenge leads to a revelation about who really likes who.
All of this is actually perfect for a PG-13 horror movie. The monster’s evil grin, which one character accurately describes as a “sick Snapchat filter” strikes the perfect balance between creepy and kooky, and the movie’s too-high/too-low stakes likely resonate with tween viewers. And the rules of the premise are simple enough to build tension without getting mired in lore.
But director Jeff Wadlow completely flubs the execution, squishing together the genres in a way that robs them each of their strength. Not only do the dares (and deaths) lack invention, but the “truths” almost always give way to big weepy moments that clash with the horror tone that preceded them. Even worse, Waldow muddies the premise by repeatedly altering the demon’s rules and M.O., while also setting characters on a quest to and from Mexico to find Carter and perform a magical ritual. To accommodate so many moving parts, Wadlow (along with writers Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz, and Christopher Roach) relies on long expository scenes, which cannot be made interesting by any musical sting or Dutch angle.
This lack of clarity undercut the movie’s most promising elements. For example, the demon forces closeted gay friend Brad (Hayden Szeto) to come out to his homophobic cop father. That’s a perfect synthesis of the movie’s three genres, but it gets introduced with the demon manifesting in a manner different (and therefore more confusing) than preceding appearances, and the confrontation occurs entirely off screen. Brad just pops by later to tell his friends how it all went down.
In the end, Truth or Dare feels not unlike an actual game of high school truth or dare: the premise sounds scary, but the execution involves nothing more than a few no-stakes stunts, a few obvious revelations, and far more relationship drama than anyone wants.