It doesn't speak well for a movie when its most redeeming quality is how it ends. The latest from low-budget, high-profile horror studio Blumhouse Productions (Insidious, Get Out, Paranormal Activity), Truth or Dare concludes with a WTF that feels like the filmmakers' way of acknowledging the justified contempt they feel for their own creation. It's by far the film's smartest moment.
But since we can't spoil that, let's tackle the rest. As everyone knows, Truth or Dare is a party game beloved by sadists and shit stirrers alike: It's a way to learn your friends' secrets and force them to do mortifying things.
Early in the film, that point is made explicitly by Carter (Landon Liboiron), a soulful-eyed college kid who has lured a group of soused spring breakers into a ruined Mexican mission for the titular game. Once each has taken a turn, he reveals that this particular game of Truth or Dare has a supernatural twist: If they don't continue to play, scrupulously obeying all the rules, they will die. Naturally, they don't take him seriously — until the bodies start piling up.
Like Blumhouse's Happy Death Day before it, Truth or Dare, directed by Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2), is barely a horror film. Never actually scary, it banks on a strain of nasty inventiveness to keep it intermittently watchable. Most of that inventiveness goes into the tactics the deadly sentient game uses to communicate with its players: It speaks through strangers and loved ones, twisting their faces into hideous Joker masks; it writes on walls; it writes on flesh; it molds digital devices to its will.
In short, the game (or the demonic presence behind it) is the real protagonist here, pulling out all the stops to make its victims take terrifying risks and reveal their deepest secrets. That might have been entertaining, or even genuinely scary, if the victims weren't a bunch of cardboard cutouts without a personality among them.
The film struggles to get us invested in the undying friendship of straitlaced do-gooder Olivia (Lucy Hale), our nominal heroine; and party girl Markie (Violett Beane). They form a triangle with generic slice of beefcake Lucas (Tyler Posey): Markie's officially dating him but plays around, while Olivia scolds her but secretly yearns to come between them.
Within the tired slasher formula, there's potential in the character of a good girl who wants to be bad. When the game speaks in the voice of Olivia's id, ordering her to unleash her selfish side, the movie's tension ought to spike. But Hale's surface perkiness never hints at anything remotely dark, her rapport with Beane never feels genuine and it's not clear why Lucas appeals to either of them. So all this college psychodrama is about as compelling as watching two bots insult each other on social media.
While friendships may be fickle, Truth or Dare demonstrates that ancient, xenophobic horror tropes never die. In this youth-oriented flick, subplots driven by YouTube and Facebook somehow coexist with that gothic Mexican mission and salacious secrets involving priests, nuns and incantations. Matthew Lewis, who published best-selling gothic novel The Monk in 1796, would have been proud.
Truth or Dare combines those hoary genre elements with the misanthropy of an old-school slasher flick. But, in place of the gore (got to keep that teen-friendly PG-13 rating!), it offers only a shallow, winking self-awareness. By the time the clever ending rolls around, the movie feels so pointless that someone might as well have done it on a dare.