TRUTH OR DARE Too Rarely Dares to Surprise

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TRUTH OR DARE: Brighter Feature

Preparing to see TRUTH OR DARE, I admitted to myself that I’m not much of a horror fan. Yet, having said that, I have to confess some of my favorite movies from the past several years have been horror movies.

Last year alone, I fell in love with three horror movies and placed them in my top 20. GET OUT was excellent. IT probably was the best scary Stephen King adaptation that bothered to be largely faithful to the source material. HAPPY DEATH DAY was a hoot. Add in straight to Netflix releases like GERALD’S GAME—really good until the last ten minutes—and THE BABYSITTER—good dumb fun—and it gets harder for me to make that blanket claim. This year, ANNIHILATION and UNSANE are borderline horror films that I saw and, respectively, loved and appreciated. MOM AND DAD was gonzo and great, a wonderful Nic Cage turn that the rest of the movie matched. Just last week A QUIET PLACE demanded and rewarded attention and changed the script on John Krasinski’s directing career in under two hours.

So it was with this newly acknowledge reality I went to see TRUTH OR DARE. Not a horror movie fan, but a man who had grown to appreciate a lot of horror. Knowing that, would TRUTH hit my newly discovered sweet spot?

TRUTH OR DARE: Phone!
In TRUTH OR DARE, even your phone cannot be trusted. (Courtesy of Blumhouse Productions)

The Idea Behind TRUTH OR DARE

Seven college classmates are partying away their last night of Spring Break of their Senior Year. Olivia (Lucy Hale) and Markie (Violett Beane) have been best friends for years. Lucas (Tyler Posey) is Markie’s boyfriend whom she can’t stop cheating on. Penelope (Sophia Taylor Ali) and Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) are the kind of boyfriend and girlfriend whom you will only see partying together, making out, or both. Brad (Hayden Szeto) is out with all his friends but still closeted at home. Last and arguably least, Ronnie (Sam Lerner) is a sort of satellite, known to them all, but not really friends with any of them.

Hoping to escape her coupled friends—including Brad who has found love on the dance floor—Olivia retreats to the bar. There, she endures Ronnie’s awkward brand of flirting/sexual harassment until a stranger, Cameron (Landon Liboiron), chases off the noxious horn dog.

When last call rolls around, the group does not feel ready to turn in. Cameron convinces them, with a lot of help from the possibly smitten Lucy, to party with him. Alcohol in hand, they follow him to an abandon mission church. There, he suggests a game of Truth or Dare.

Before long, he reveals this is no ordinary Truth or Dare. The group must continue to play—tell the truth or do the dare—or they will be killed. Despite the ludicrousness of his claim, it rapidly becomes undeniably real.

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The Writing

The script — from Michael Reisz, Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach, and director Jeff Wadlow — sets up a fairly straightforward set of rules. Unfortunately, they almost immediately go about breaking them. First, it’s that the “game” is Truth or Dare except sometimes it isn’t. Later it pulls that dickish of Truth or Dare moves, “I dare to tell the truth about blah blah blah.” The movie suggests that it is because the force behind the game is “smart.” Therefore, it is tweaking things as it goes to stop our heroes from winning. However, in practice that makes it seem like there is no reason to play because this isn’t any actual game. It’s just a protracted form of torture.

To give credit where credit is due, though, the script does manage to create seven distinctive characters that all talk in different voices. Unfortunately, two of them—Tyson and Ronnie—feel nearly cartoonish in their terribleness.

Overall, unfortunately, the script does almost everything you expect at almost every moment you expect it to. For a genre of movie that demand shocks and surprises, everything feels surprisingly rote.

TRUTH OR DARE: Group Shot
Hayden Szeto, Violett Beane, Lucy Hale, Sophia Taylor Ali, and Tyler Posey hang in the Old Warehouse District like millennials do these days, in a scene from TRUTH OR DARE. (Courtesy of Blumhouse Productions)

Casting The Leads

Lucy Hale makes her Olivia appropriately pure of heart at the start. As a consequence though, you often find yourself wondering how she ended friends with most of these people. She is clearly outgoing and involved beyond them, so why doesn’t she hang with people that match her interests more?

Hale is ill-served by the script when the time comes for her Ripley moment. She sells a certain toughness, but there is no build up. One moment she is kind-hearted and thoughtful, the next she is brandishing a gun and hissing with rage. Events escalate around her, but she just seems to move in binary.

Violett Beane has the most to do as Mattie. Reeling from an earlier trauma, in love with her boyfriend but seemingly unable to stay faithful, and absolutely dependent on Olivia yet so quick to resent her, Beane has to cover a lot of real estate. Her anger feels bland, but she sells her panic and her sense of longing fairly well.

Meanwhile, Posey’s role is thankless and flat. He can’t do much with it.

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Casting the Rest of the TRUTH OR DARE Call Sheet

As noted above, Tyson is an awful piece of humanity. He’s arrogant, always looking to stir things up, and a writer of fake prescriptions. However, one has to give praise to Funk for so fully committing to him. Tyson is a collection of clichés but Funk sells it. You absolutely believe this guy walks amongst us. You can’t figure out for the life of you how he hangs out with Olivia but you absolutely believe in him.

Szeto does a fairly one-note character—see my description of Brad in the idea section—and does good things with him. Brad is funny and sad in equal measure and Szeto portrays both. His dare involving his uptight police officer father might be the movie’s tensest moment and that is entirely dependent on the way Szeto plays it.

There are no other real stand-outs in the cast. No one is particularly bad, which is good news, but no one stands out as great either. The movie could have really benefited from someone chewing the scenery but no one even tries.

TRUTH OR DARE: The formerly happy couple
Tyler Posey and Violett Beane comfort each other in tough times during TRUTH OR DARE. (Courtesy of Blumhouse Productions)

Filming

Jeff Wadlow is at his best in this movie when he trusts his performers and the emotional content. As noted above, the scene between Brad and his dad is intense and Wadlow does nothing to trick it out. Even the CGI smile that is associated with the game does not make an appearance. He mostly holds close on Brad’s face as he desperately tries to complete the dare while minimizing the fallout.

I don’t want to put down that smile though. It is effective as a device several times, which is surprising given how often it appears. In particular, the way Wadlow conveys the difference between reality and what the participant is seeing with a simple camera move is nice nonevasive work. The way the camera looks on some faces, especially Hale, is appropriately alien to creep you out even as he just lets the camera linger on it.

When Wadlow goes for more conventional horror tricks though, especially jump scares, he falls down. He teases them out too long for them to be surprising but never long enough to make you feel safe again. The results are usually bland and unshocking.

Finally, I have to take a moment to compliment how he conveys a sense of space. It is an odd thing to point out because it does not aid the movie, really, but I appreciate it. It may point to his ability to do bigger and more interesting things down the road. The mission looms over our heroes, distant and tempting at the same time. A roof seems manageable at points, raising your hopes, and so extended and spacious—dashing those hopes—at others. It’s a small thing, but, again, it builds tension in a way the score or jump scares never did.

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Striking the Set

With the exception of Olivia’s last move, the film goes exactly where you would expect every step of the way. With a little more inventiveness and a little more trust in the audience, perhaps it could have been a tense piece of filmmaking. Instead it feels rote and, unlike a handful of performances, generic. TRUTH OR DARE fails to capture neither the cheese nor the mounting anxiety of its party game namesake.

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