Review: Truth or Dare

Based on the titular party game, this teen horror effort starts with a parade of clichés and continues in the same fashion.
Review: Truth or Dare

Movie still of Truth or Dare via Universal Studios. 

An age-old party staple, Truth or dare? is a game of questions, secrets, challenges and humiliation. It’s also a game packaged as fun but predicated upon horror. Players don’t just want to laugh as their friends flit from revelations to revelry with each passing turn – they want to see their pals pushed to the limit, blushing a rainbow of mortification while sharing titbits and getting up to antics they’d rather not. It’s a show as much as a participatory experience, with partakers enduring their own agony so that they can witness the torment of others. Of course, it’s usually harmless, humorous and enjoyed in good spirits, but it still boils down to a simple template: someone suffers, others watch.

Sound familiar? It’s the same approach employed by horror movies, a reality that Truth or Dare, the film, is content to capitalise upon. With voyeuristic gratification a significant part of both the game and the genre, combining the two couldn’t be simpler – in essence, it merely expands the game’s audience beyond the participants, incorporating cinemas filled with onlookers. Indeed, the Jeff Wadlow (True Memoirs of an International Assassin)-co-written and -directed effort isn’t the first to try the feat. And, with the flick overtly angling for a sequel, it won’t be the last. The latest attempt might’ve opened the door for a welcome new teen horror franchise, too, if it didn’t prove so dull and derivative. 

Scripted by Wadlow with Christopher Roach (Non-Stop), Michael Reisz (TV’s Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments) and Jillian Jacobs (a former Big Brother producer), Truth or Dare starts with a parade of clichés and continues in the uninspired same fashion, hurtling towards an inevitable conclusion. Spring break hijinks lead a group of college seniors to a deserted Mexican mansion, where they’re soon revealing their secret crushes and running around naked, only to learn they’re still playing the game once they return home. When studious, sensible Olivia (Lucy Hale, Pretty Little Liars) realises their predicament, she’s determined to uncover the reasoning behind it, but her pals take some convincing. That said, nothing boosts her case more than fresh rounds of forced truth-telling and dare-taking – plus the fact that, if someone opts not to play, or lies, or doesn’t complete their turn or task, they swiftly wind up dead.

Raucous shenanigans, mysterious strangers, squabbling pals, spooky churches and supernatural origin stories: ticking off an easy checklist, Truth or Dare includes them all. In the feature’s lone interesting touch, it heightens the stakes through the gang’s interpersonal dramas, which the game knows and exploits – Olivia has feelings for her best friend Markie’s (Violett Beane, The Flash) boyfriend Lucas (Tyler Posey, Teen Wolf), arrogant Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk, Major Crimes) is applying to medical school, his girlfriend Penelope (Sophia Ali, Grey’s Anatomy) might have a drinking problem, and Brad (Hayden Szeto, The Edge of Seventeen) can’t tell his cop dad he’s gay – but the film can’t escape its underlying formula. The list of horror efforts bumping off the young and attractive is as plentiful as this particular cohort’s by-the-numbers problems and their equally routine fight-or-flight choices, after all, a truth the movie dare not challenge. Accordingly, its thinly written characters and obvious plot developments come packaged not only with a swathe of easy jump-scares, but with a been-there, done-that air.

Still, if the film tried to have fun with its premise and predictability, all of the above might’ve offered a sliver of enjoyment. Instead, Truth or Dare is gleeful in a vapid soap opera-meets-gratuitous slasher flick way, favouring superficial thrills and gags over inventiveness, subversion or depth. Shot in a glossy yet bland manner, telegraphing its twists well in advance and slapping on a rote commentary about today’s social media-dominated behaviour, the movie proves the embodiment of a slyly mischievous smile – designed to unsettle, but never needing to extend beyond its impudent exterior. It’s fitting that the feature serves up just that, visually, as a literal symbol of its evil tomfoolery at work. Truth or Dare clearly expects its audience to beam the same grin back at the screen, as they might if they were actually playing Truth or dare?; the real game, however, rarely turns out to be so inane.


Truth or Dare

Director: Jeff Wadlow

US, 2018, 100 mins

Release date: April 12

Distributor: Universal

Rated: M

Sarah Ward

Tuesday 17 April, 2018

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay