A bunch of miscellaneous high schoolers are in Mexico for spring break. The Main One (Lucy Hale) convinces her friends to follow A Guy She Met at a Bar (Landon Liboiron) to an abandoned mission in the hills. Once they arrive there, said Guy talks everyone into playing a game of Truth or Dare. After a few rounds of mild soap opera drama, Guy tells them all that they aren’t just playing a game, after all, but have agreed to joined him in being cursed by a demon that takes the form of the eponymous game and forces all participants to select either a ‘Truth’ or a ‘Dare’. The forfeit if they refuse? Death.
What maketh a one-star movie? Could it be a flurry of bad ideas spiralling helplessly out of control, resulting in the turgid Batman and Robins and Wild Wild Wests of the world? What about an underlying insidiousness, a mean streak so thick and ham-fisted that it gives birth to the likes of Dirty Grandpa and London Has Fallen? Or perhaps a fundamental ineptitude that tarnishes everything it touches and flourishes into a glorious anti-masterpiece a la Plan 9 From Outer Space and the beloved The Room?
Sure. It can, and has been, all of the above. Unfortunately, in the case of Truth or Dare, what makes it so low-grade is something infinitely more mundane than any of those curios: it’s just deathly dull. Taking a dumb premise and inexplicably snapping on a PG-13-branded guzzle, Jeff Wadlow’s virgin cocktail of a horror movie limps from badly-staged set-piece to badly-staged set-piece and fumbles every beat on the way. Its stiff anaemia is all the more baffling given the bloodletting potential of its setup – respond to your ‘truth’ or ‘dare’ correctly or die – which only serves to enunciate how unbearably boring everything actually is.
The lameness of Truth or Dare’s execution does little to help the performers, who are given the unenviable task of having to cultivate a sense of fear around the gormless Snapchat-filter grin that’s meant to signify the demonic Big Bad. But just because they were given a poisoned chalice doesn’t mean that they’re exempt from their fair portion of the blame. Performance can go some way towards salvaging weak material, after all; as much as I hate to say so, imagine Pirates of the Caribbean without Johnny Depp (well, the watchable one, anyway). Alas, such respite is never forthcoming. What we have instead are indistinguishable MTV-drama stars who pout and breathe-act their way through this threadbare world and, somehow, make their one-dimensional ciphers even less human than they seem on paper. In the end, it’s the thought of the gruesome deaths that might befall them that sustains you.
Which, in turn, is what marks Truth or Dare out for the shit show it really is. Characters can be unsympathetic in horror movies – that’s fine. We don’t need to like them. But what we do need is justification for the time we spend with them. Conventional wisdom has it that, the more of a douchebag a character comes across as, the more schadenfreude we can expect to derive from their nasty demise. Here, though, the gore packs the punch of a milky cup of tea. The sheer feebleness of the scares is truly shocking, the lack of follow-though reeking of committee-driven, lowest-common-denominator groupthink. What’s more, one has the sneaking suspicion that the film doesn’t even realise how loathsome its protagonists are.
All of which makes for a horror movie comprehensively lacking in horror. Hell, it’s not even really a movie: It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster of ideas cribbed from better, smarter movies, cynically calibrated to trick its target audience into parting with its hard-earned pocket money. Want to see assholes decimated in inventive, satisfying ways? Watch Final Destination. Want to see a group of teens doomed to be pursued by a shapeless entity until one of them is able to break the impossible cycle, with the nice bonus of meaty subtext to boot? Watch It Follows. Want to know what it feels like to leave a movie as a less intelligent person than when you went in, with each second of the 103-minute runtime dragged out to feel like an eternity? Of course you don’t, so do yourself a favour and forget Truth or Dare even exists.