Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review: Truth or Dare (2018)

Truth or Dare (2018)

Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing content, alcohol abuse, some sexuality, language and thematic material

Score: 1 out of 5 (quality), 3 out of 5 (unintentional comedy)

Yep, it's one of those movies. We're in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension territory here. This is exactly the movie that the trailers have been selling: a low-rent teen horror flick from Blumhouse, the production company of the modern-day Roger Corman himself Jason Blum, designed to cash in on the popularity of its teen stars with an array of cheap jump scares. I saw this in a packed house with exactly the sort of audience you'd expect to show up for a PG-13 horror movie starring Aria from Pretty Little Liars and Scott from the MTV Teen Wolf reboot, and even though my go-to multiplex doesn't label theaters with anything more than a number (makes it harder to sneak into other movies afterwards when you don't know what's playing or when), I didn't have to look at my ticket to find which theater this was showing in; all I had to do was follow the screeching, giggling teenagers. And one hundred minutes later, I got exactly what I paid for and then some, which is a movie that embodies all the cliches of teen horror and doesn't seem to realize just how laughably ridiculous its main jump-scare gimmick is; seriously, I wasn't the only one in that theater laughing my ass off at the giant smiling faces. (I've seen multiple critics compare them to a Willem Dafoe impression, and they're not far off.)

But what I wasn't expecting was the middle finger this movie waved at the audience at the end, a defiantly nihilistic moment that takes the rest of the film's (and the genre's) flippant attitude towards people dying to its logical conclusion. As this movie ended, I heard audience members hurling F-bombs in its general direction, but me? I had a gigantic shit-eating grin on my face that could easily be mistaken for the ones that the characters wear as they play the supernatural game of truth or dare at the center of the story. After spending most of its runtime trying, and only barely succeeding, at crafting a credible story and interesting characters, it felt as though the filmmakers realized at the end that, since they couldn't salvage a good movie out of this, they may as well just go out on a memorable note. Bravo, movie. Bravo.

What really makes this movie disappointing -- if you can say that I had any expectations for it -- is that some of the ideas in the plot are actually pretty interesting. Yes, it's about a game of truth or dare that starts killing the people playing it, forcing them to either reveal their deepest, darkest secrets or perform dangerous stunts lest they get possessed by a demon that makes them kill themselves. Yes, the details of how this game/demon operates wind up ripping off It Follows except with less sex, making my comment in that review about how that film would play out as a conventional teen horror flick feel all the more prescient. An evil force that takes the form of an idea rather than a flesh-and-blood (or at least spiritual yet tangible) killer has been done in the past; the Canadian horror film Pontypool, about a zombie outbreak that is spread not through bites, scratches, or bodily fluids but through the English language, is one such example. But it feels as though no attempt was made to explore the implications of this, as though the motivation of director Jeff Wadlow (who's also credited as co-writer with three other people) was little more than "let's milk that teenage allowance money". Plot holes erupt at a mile a minute, big enough to fly a plane through, and rules are constantly made up just to advance the plot forward, most notably when it suddenly says that the protagonists can't ask "truth" three times in a row because reasons. (It's explained in the story, but it still feels like an ass-pull to throw the characters into life-threatening situations.) The lack of thought is most apparent with the characters. Our heroine Olivia has a secret that she really doesn't want her best friend Markie to find out about that concerns the suicide of Markie's father, knowing that Markie would freak if she knew what really happened that night. A more capable filmmaker might have managed to give Olivia and Markie some depth through this, but once you take some time to think about what was intended to be a shocking reveal, you notice that the film -- once again -- doesn't seem particularly concerned with the implications. This is especially so given that the demon behind the game winds up later taking the father's form through a video of him that Markie has saved on her cell phone, meaning that she must now face him (or at least an evil apparition of him) knowing what she does now. Instead, however, all of the focus is placed on the drama between Olivia and Markie, which easily proves to be the least interesting part of that story.

I'm not kidding about the scares being laughable either, in the sense that I was literally laughing at the screen when the main characters' faces contorted into gigantic smiles, their eyes literally turning red, as they asked the fateful question of "truth or dare?" to others. Some more subtlety might have worked in this regard; dropping the glowing eyes and having the actors do their best creepy smiles, or even just ask the main characters normally without any immediate indication that they're possessed, would've actually been scarier than the cheesy special effects that even one of the characters compares to a Snapchat filter. But then, this movie wouldn't have been such a train-wreck joy to watch if not for that misguided creative decision, more than making up for the tame PG-13 kills in terms of delivering cheap, so-bad-it's-good B-movie moments. And just when I thought that this film only had one trick in its book in terms of making me laugh... we get to the ending. Hoo boy, do we get to the ending of this. A moment that left a big, fat smile on my face as it completely destroyed any sympathy I might have had for its heroine, the ending of this film feels like it was slapped together at the last minute when the writers were stumped as to how to conclude the story; don't be surprised if there are multiple "shocking alternate endings too scary for theaters!" on the DVD and Blu-Ray. Without spoiling anything, it is one of the most nihilistic conclusions I have ever seen in any movie, let alone a mass-market PG-13 horror flick designed to reach into the wallets of teenagers with disposable income, and it is the flip side of the creative freedom that Blumhouse offers filmmakers in exchange for its low budgets; at any other studio, that "fuck the world" ending would've been slapped down in an instant. But, they put it in this movie, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

The Bottom Line

If you can, see Truth or Dare in a packed theater full of teenagers to get the best experience possible. I've already heard this being compared to the remake of The Wicker Man in terms of cheesy, awesomely bad movie-watching experiences, and it's one that I am grateful to have seen early. Bring plenty of beer and weed.

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