Cinema Dispatch: Truth or Dare

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Truth or Dare and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures

Directed by Jeff Wadlow

Another day, another PRESENTED BY BLUMHOUSE film, which basically means it’s time to flip a coin! Heads Blumhouse wins, tails I lose but Blumhouse still makes a bunch of money! They’re certainly a studio that’s had their ups and downs as they’ve been responsible for getting films like Get Out and the Purge Franchise to the big screen, but are also responsible for The Gallows, at least half the Paranormal Activity movies, and that first Ouija movie. Now normally I’m at least SOMEWHAT aware when Blumhouse is putting out a horror film (at least one that has a shot of getting a wide release) but this one flew COMPLETELY under my radar which can only mean good things, right!? Does this film manage to rise above the underwhelming marketing it’s received and be a gem in its own right, or is this gonna be worse than Jem in its own right (yet ANOTHER of Blumhouse’s failures)? Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with a group of friends traveling to Mexico to celebrate Spring Break by drinking booze and eating nachos! One of the young women named Olivia (Lucy Hale) ends up meeting some cool dude named Carter (Landon Liboiron) and he leads the whole group to some abandoned church in the middle of nowhere to… I don’t know, party I guess? Doesn’t SEEM like the place to get wasted considering how much dirt and broken stuff is littering the floor, but Carter ends up convincing them to play a game of Truth or Dare. It goes… alright I guess, but Carter eventually flees and leaves Olivia with a warning; KEEP PLAYING THE GAME OR ELSE! Well THAT certainly seems weird. Anyway, the group heads back home to continue their college education, but soon enough ghostly figures and other strange occurrences compel them to continue the game with HORRIFIC results. Basically you can either do the challenge the ghostly visions propose which USUALLY involves hurting someone or hurting themselves, OR the ghosts will make them commit suicide because THAT’S not tasteless in the least! So I guess the game is on as each one of them has to take turns being tortured and risking death until… something happens I guess? I mean, that something is PROBABLY death considering there doesn’t seem to be a Get Out of Jail Free card for this situation, so… keep your chin up I guess! Can this group of friends find a way to outsmart this game that for whatever reason has followed them back home? What secrets will they learn about each other as the game continues, and how far will they be pushed to go just to survive? Did someone fall asleep at the wheel over at Blumhouse, because that’s the only excuse I can think of for how this managed to get past even THEIR lax standards!

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“I dare you to not suck, movie.”     “DAMN IT!  That’s a trap and you know it!”

 

I might be jumping the gun a bit here, but I think the last few years has been a golden age for horror films that we haven’t seen since the eighties with classics like Get Out, The Purge: Election Year, The Witch, and even films like The Conjuring which I may have no love for but still managed to connect with audiences. After suffering through remake fever in the 2000s and the found footage craze in the early to mid-teens, the genre seems to have carved out a significant place in popular culture by elevating new and creative voices. I bring all this up because this movie right here is one of the most shameful and tone oblivious horror films I’ve seen and it feels like a throwback to when the likes of Eli Roth were supposedly the kings of the genre. It’s not because this movie is gory, objectifies women, or any of the other stuff that many often complain about in bad horror films; rather this is a movie that seems to have been SO careless with its premise that it made something deeply sinister and disturbing and not in a way that an audience should find enjoyable. It’s a LITTLE bit fascinating in that regard to see just how badly a horror film can go if it doesn’t pay attention to what it’s doing, but I’d rather stab my own eyes out before watching this again to take notes. Oh yeah! It REALLY is that bafflingly awful!

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“I dare you not to be a reprehensible mess.”     “UGH!  Why are you making this so HARD!?”

Okay, so to sum up this movie’s fatal flaw in a pithy way; the film’s lack of a message, theme, and substance means that only the worst and most ghastly interpretation remains. Think about other movies that are utterly SHOCKING in their depiction of ultra-violence or human savagery and you’ll find that underneath all the terror and nightmares is an idea that the filmmakers wanted to get across. Does it always work? Well no, if movies like Mother or It Comes at Night are any indication, but then we have great success stories like The Purge series, Get Out, Battle Royale, and plenty of John Carpenter’s work which all have something to say about the time and society in which they were created. I’m not the biggest fan of cruelty on screen, but having a REASON for the darkness to be there goes a long way for me and has even led to some of these films being a few of my all-time favorites. However, this movie is just careless about everything; to the point that I don’t even think the filmmakers are quite aware of JUST how disturbing the premise is as they take several opportunities to try and turn this situation into a comedy. Let’s break this down real quick. These people are forced to do increasingly worse and self-destructive things on the whims of… whatever it is that’s running this game, and they have no way to object, fight back, or bring this cruel game to a close. They are going to keep getting hurt and will continue to hurt others until they die doing so, and there’s nothing they can do about it. With Jason Voorhees, you could fight back. If you’re possessed, someone can try an exorcism. Here? There’s really no hope for ANYTHING to get better until incredibly late into the film and even THAT doesn’t really amount to much. There are plenty of ways to work this premise out that would have been FASCINATING to watch on screen, but there just wasn’t enough thought put into this to keep such an unfathomably dark and dour scenario from being oppressively awful to sit through.

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“I dare you to at least THINK about what you’re doing before doing it.”     “Why would I do that when I can just throw terrible things at the screen and call it horror!?  These aren’t making any sense!!”

Okay, but there’s no arbitrary line to how dark is TOO dark, right? Why doesn’t this work outside of it (intentionally or not) reaching so low into the depths of darkness? Well it goes back to the whole lack of a message here. There have been movies like this were someone is forced to go along with the whims of powers much greater than they can control; I hear Cheap Thrills from 2013 was pretty great, and I’d even count A Serbian Film in that category which is a film that goes EVEN FURTHER into darkness than this one (though at least THAT film was INTENTIONALLY trying to do that). You know what these films have though? Antagonists that exist as characters while also providing the thematic backbone of their respective movies. At no point does the entity running the game here have a real sense of character or stakes (an asinine smile does not count), and this harms the film for two reasons. First it’s hard to have a message when there’s nothing that can be representative of some greater evil being criticized (even if they aren’t literally on screen like The Government in Battle Royale), and second when you DON’T have a rather distinct entity to be your antagonist, the filmmakers kind of take on that role within the movie. Think about it this way. The central conflict is not against some shadowy organization (a la Nerve), it’s not against EACH OTHER which would have been the most obvious way to go about this (why is the entity choosing the challenges instead of the players trying to screw each other out LIKE HOW TRUTH OR DARE WORKS!?), and since they are being manipulated and controlled through a good chunk of this, the conflict can’t even be considered an internal one which would be more in line with something like Flatliners (more so the original than the remake). To me, when the conflict and its justification are THAT far removed from the story itself, then the justification for the atrocities on screen is the filmmakers desire to put them on screen. They aren’t telling a story by way of disturbing violence, and in the absence of that the disturbing violence becomes an end goal in and of itself; a goal that I don’t find laudable and in no way justifies what we end up having to witness on screen.

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“I dare you to give me a reason to CARE that violence is happening.”     “Well THAT should be an easy one!  Let me show you something gory and see if that changes your tune!”

Now all that would be bad enough (at least for me), but the movie goes further than that and here’s where things go from misguided and unpleasant to actively offensive and harmful. As stated before, the movie uses suicide A LOT because the only way that the filmmakers could think to give their ephemeral threat a degree of menace is to have it FORCE the players to commit suicide if they refuse to try or fail to win their challenge. They don’t get hit a by a truck, they aren’t murdered by some ghostly entity, they put a gun to their head and fire or they find a sharp object and stab themselves until they bleed out. They’re free will is forfeit if they can’t or won’t do the challenge, and there’s NOTHING they or anyone else can do to stop them from ending their own life. Look, horror movies are built off of the threat of death which in real life is horrible and tragic, and there are even suicides within the genre that are considered iconic moments such as the nanny’s leap off the building in The Omen. It’s all about the context though, and as we discussed this film pretty much HAS no context which makes the scenes of death and bloodshed the end goal in and of themselves, and to make that worse by having the majority of deaths in this being SUICIDES is just reprehensible. As much as I don’t get a kick out of watching torture and death for its own sake, I for DAMN sure aren’t about to forgive a movie that tries to do the same thing with the utter tragedy of someone taking their own life. You could argue that they’re not REALLY committing suicide because they don’t have a choice within the logic of the film, but the imagery is still THERE and they even have a non-possession suicide as a plot point within the movie which is handled just as poorly. I won’t be specific, but I HAVE to get into the circumstances surrounding a character’s death in this, so if you don’t want to be spoiled (if you somehow actually WANTED to see this garbage still), then jump ahead now.

We good? Alright then. One character commits suicide because they sexually assaulted a minor and felt SO guilty about it. Here’s the thing. Predators and abusers will threaten suicide as a way to manipulate their victims; to make them feel sorry for them or to make them feel guilty about wanting to end the abuse. This movie however takes that very common tactic and makes it very much a real thing by never explaining if this was a onetime instance of abuse (spoiler alert; it never is) and having the guy actually go through with the suicide; not as a way to continue manipulating the victim, rather it’s framed as a guy who genuinely did it out of guilt. Apparently he was a nice guy who made a mistake and the victim was too cruel to let him get away with it so he had to kill himself. That… that is BEYOND the pale in terms of toxic ideas being carelessly inserted into horror films. How fucking DARE this piece of shit movie pull that crap! MAYBE I could have gotten over how the villain is non-existent villain frames the whole movie as some voyeuristic thrill ride through the pain and suffering of these people, but them going the extra mile to thoughtlessly include suicide and sexual abuse in the way that it did here turns what might have been dispassionate loathing into a white hot seething rage.

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“I don’t feel like playing anymore.”     “So… does that mean I win?”     “Sure.  Whatever you say.”

Yeah, if it isn’t clear already you shouldn’t see this freaking movie. Beyond my own problems with this being such a toxic experience, it really isn’t anything you haven’t seen in a dozen other horror films (probably the closest comparison in terms of film making competency would be The Bye Bye Man) and none of it makes up for just how terribly it all went wrong. I don’t think I hate it as much as say The Green Inferno, but if I’ll give it a modicum of credit (I almost puked writing that), it KNEW what it was going for. What it was going for was reprehensible and twisted, but it at least achieved those awful goals. This doesn’t feel like it was trying to be that and instead accidentally fell into being one of the most offensive and emotionally draining experiences I’ve had in a theater. SERIOUSLY, HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO SCREW UP THAT BADLY!?

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