Review: Truth or Dare

“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.

 

Review: A Quiet Place

“I’m just a father with a good imagination. In my imagination, I lose my children every day.”

That’s the response author John Irving gave to a reader who asked how he, a father, could write The World According to Garp, a novel filled with lurid scenes of child-peril. Nearly every parent can identify with the experience of seeing the world as a giant death-trap, waiting to snatch away the children whose safety we need to ensure and whose innocence we want to prolong.

A Quiet Place makes those fears explicit, following a family of four still reeling from the loss of one child while preparing for the birth of another. Also, they’re surrounded by unkillable, super-fast beasties with incredibly sensitive hearing. Any noise louder than a gasp means instant death. And kids, any parent can tell you, are sentient balls of noise.

It’s to the credit of director John Krasinski, who also stars as the family patriarch, that we immediately buy into this premise and rarely question its “whys” and “hows.” Krasinski and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen confidently move the camera through spaces occupied by the family, showing not only their day to day silent lives, but their familial interactions.

In fact, as impressive as the movie’s direction and world design may be, it’s really the film’s attention to family dynamics that makes it work. A Quiet Place takes time to show these characters as people trying their best to live together and support one another, lingering on kids playing games or the father teaching his son (Noah Jupe) how to fish.

Krasinski’s character, haunted by the loss of his child and desperate to keep his children safe, follows the usual “stoic dad” tropes, but finds new ways of interpreting the stock figure by limiting expression to looks of concern or silent shushing. As the mother, Emily Blunt gets far more to do, nurturing her children with a silly face or a soft hand on their heads, and later trying to deliver a child without making a sound.

But while Jupe’s job is mostly to react with worry to real or imagined threats, the standout here is Millicent Simmonds as the older sister. As a deaf girl living with both the guilt of her role in the younger brother’s death and a world where noise means instant death, the movie stacks a little too much drama on her character. But Simmonds manages to ground her character, making her adolescent rebellion as believable as it is ill-advised.

The movie works best when its set-pieces harness our own parental fears and our concern for these characters. But it also fails when it forgets how much we’ve bought into its rules. The monster’s hearing sensitivity fluctuates in the last act, and special arrangements become fuzzy.

This last part is particularly problematic, as the film too often loses track of characters while focusing on the threats facing others. Instead of fully engaging in the plight of those we see, viewers find ourselves distracted by the absence of others. Rather than build tension, this approach makes us frustrated with the characters. The most egregious example occurs when, shortly after an attack, mom and dad give one another a pep-talk about how their entire identities are built on protecting their kids. Instead of thinking, “Being a parent is tough and admirable,” we viewers find ourselves shouting (quietly, so as not to prompt an attack), “Go get your kids, morons!”

Fortunately, those moments are few, and the movie finds some new way to imperil a kid, thus triggering our protective instincts and getting us drawn right back into the dangerous world of A Quiet Place.

Review: The Strangers: Prey at Night

“Because you were home.”

That line is the scariest part of the 2008 home invasion slasher The Strangers. It perfectly captures the movie’s sense of nihilistic dread, the fear that three people might decide to torture and kill you for no reason at all.

That dread is also the biggest argument against the existence of this year’s sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night. The masked killers – unofficially called “Dollface,” “Man in the Mask,” and “Pin-Up Girl” – still lack discernable motivation, but we do know a little bit about them now. When Dollface pounds on the door and asks for Tamera, it lacks the same chill as the original. We’ve seen this before. It’s their schtick.

It’s to the credit of director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Below) that the movie is so effective despite losing that crucial element.

Prey at Night follows the old sequel maxim of “the same, but more.” In addition to upping the body count with a prelude, this entry swaps out the original’s couple on the rocks with a nuclear family and expands the setting from a single house to an abandoned trailer park. And like the original, our victims here are in the throes of domestic turmoil: teenage daughter Kinsey’s (Bailee Madison) unspecified rebellions force her mom and dad (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) to send her to a boarding school, with older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) reluctantly in tow.

That’s hardly the most exciting drama, and Kinsey’s fashionably ripped jeans and Ramones t-shirt signals a Hot Topic shopper more than a juvenile delinquent, but the small personal stakes work in light of the movie’s existential threat. Problems that one seemed so monumental become utterly meaningless when you’re hunted for no reason.

Roberts accentuates this meaninglessness by giving the film ironic distance. Cinematographer Ryan Samul shoots the movie beautifully, employing long-distance shots with which he zooms or slowly pushes onto the characters from far away, reinforcing the sense that they’re constantly being followed. Samul occasionally spikes the screen with colors from gaudy neon lights around the park, which pairs well with the soundtrack — a mix of 80s pop (Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” figure prominently) and Adrien Johnston’s Goblin-inspired original score. Juxtaposing slasher horror with neon and synth is a page from Adam Winguard’s play book, but it works exceptionally well here. As demonstrated by a scene in which a character tries to keep above water in a pool while bleeding out from a stab wound, the music and color implies the universe laughing while people die horrible deaths.

These drawn out scenes of suffering are difficult to endure, but they set the movie apart from most slashers. We actually care about the family and the film simultaneously acknowledges and expands our sadness at their deaths. The family members are sensible people, which not only makes us like them, but it allows Roberts and screenwriters Brian Bertino and Ben Katai to dodge cliches about dumb victims. For example, the victims lose their cell phones because, before bad things happen, dad collects them for quality family time — leaving them in a convenient pile when the killers come to smash them.

So while the final third act is still fun, one cannot help but be disappointed when the movie starts directly following slasher tropes, giving the heretofore human killers Jason Voorhees’s teleportation and regeneration powers, and hitting well-worn story beats.

These genre dips make the movie feel too familiar, which is a shame. Up until that point, The Strangers: Prey at Night managed to scare despite making its agents of cosmic indifference become more predictable.

Review: Annihilation

Although critically and commercially reviled when released in 1982, genre fans now recognize John Carpenter’s The Thing as a horror classic, thanks in large part to its grotesque visuals and its exploration on the nature of identity. No one in the movie knows who the invading alien has infected and replicated, not even its host, until tendrils sprout from an arm and a toothy maw opens from a chest cavity.

Annihilation, the Alex Garland (Ex Machina) directed adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, builds on those themes, echoing aspects of the earlier film but refiguring its ideas, moving beyond body horror and toward something more existential.

Instead of an arctic base, Annihilation takes place off the Florida coast, where a crashed meteor emits a widening ring of radiation called “The Shimmer”.

And where The Thing was an all-male affair (save Adrienne Barbeau voicing a computer chess program), the team here consists entirely of women, each with her own reason for undertaking this certainly fatal mission. For Natalie Portman’s biologist Lena, that reason is to find out what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who, despite being the only soldier to return from a mission into The Shimmer, came back a different person.

Kane’s condition sounds troubling, and Lena certainly sees it that way, but Annihilation derives much of its power from its ambivilance about mutation. Change and replication are facts of life, as Lena explains in an early lecture about cellular mitosis, and the image of cells dividing and changing serve as the film’s central visual metaphor — sometimes advancing life and sometimes destroying it, in the form of cancer.

This permeable border between life and death, between one identity and another, drives the horror of Annihilation. As in The Thing, infected bodies twist and transmute into terrifyingly uncanny organisms; but in The Shimmer, where animal and mineral and vegetable merge together, the results are often as beautiful as they are unsettling. Radiation infuses Florida swampland with psychadelic rainbows and a yellow haze, mixing flowers of violet and blue into visitor’s flesh. The mutated creatures inhabiting The Shimmer unquestionably differ from things we’ve seen before, but we can’t be fully revulsed by them.

Garland further disrupts the audience with the structure of the piece, which seems to follow a fairly straightforward plot: the events of the film are related by a Lena who has already escaped The Shimmer and is being interviewed by another scientist. This storytelling conceit gives viewers certain expectations for its endpoint, establishing from the outset who lives and dies and basic motivations. But then the narrative itself mutates, as heretofore supportive women turn on one another, as new pieces of information are introduce, as Garland uses cameras inside cameras to blur the distinction between teller and tale. The story we thought we were watching, the people we thought we knew, reshape before our eyes.

Is that a bad thing? Are these new forms inherently more monstrous than the flawed versions we thought we knew? Annihilation refuses to answer those questions, and instead leaves us struggling with the implications of our answers, leaving us with a creeping sense of dread as our minds change.