Director: Nick Simon
Writer: Thommy Hutson, Ethan Lawrence
Producer: Lisa Hansen
Stars: Cassie Scerbo, Brytni Sarpy, Mason Dye, Harvey Guillen, Luke Baines, Ricardo Hoyos, Alexxis Lemire, Christina Masterson, Heather Langenkamp
Eight friends end up targeted for horrible deaths after playing a supernatural game of Truth or Dare inside a haunted house.
Just yesterday I happened to be editing my review of “Happy Death Day.” In it, I praise the movie as a turning point for the typical Blumhouse teen thriller template, evolving from a hard focus on satisfying slumber-partying preteens to something with substance capable of capturing hardcore horror crowds too.
It’s an interesting coincidence that today, I found myself watching Syfy’s 2017 original “Truth or Dare,” because the film opts for an opposite direction, feeling regressively like a PG-13 Blumhouse production circa 2014. It’s competently executed, yet not at all ambitious. Characters are hollow to the point where stereotyping doesn’t even bother going all the way through the motions, though the target demo probably cares more about the pretty faces playing these thin roles anyway. There also isn’t a single trope up the film’s sleeve that can’t be seen slipping out from a mile away, but that doesn’t immediately mean the movie can’t be enjoyed under appropriate circumstances.
There’s nothing outwardly awful about picking a formula, sticking to it, and intentionally aiming to please an undemanding audience with milquetoast mediocrity. It’s just that acceptability thresholds for such strategies are thinning, and Syfy barely sneaks in under the wire while its competition experiences increased value from being bolder.
The above is more or less meant as a side note of mild disappointment. After attempting something stylistic within the slasher subgenre in his previous outing “The Girl in the Photographs,” I would have preferred to see director Nick Simon continue keeping creativity a high priority. Alas, professionals at this tier often don’t have the luxury to be choosy, so he and his team take a straight gig to do honest work on an uncomplicated project instead. Maybe his aching artist’s eye explains why “Truth or Dare” at least ends up being an entertaining lark, even if it is largely derivative.
It’s party time for eight college kids looking for some frightful fun. You know what that means. Here comes an introductory montage of those friends driving to a haunted house they’ve rented for the Halloween holiday while vague pop rock pumps in the background. And what would a predictable game of Truth or Dare be without two girls kissing and a revealed secret involving one girl who slept with her best friend’s boyfriend?
Things take a more interesting turn when an unseen demon traps everyone in the house and delivers his own dares via supernatural messages. For the remaining 70 of its 90-minute duration, “Truth or Dare” becomes a TV movie reimagining of “Ouija” (review here) meets “Saw” as everyone mutilates themselves in a series of harrowing sequences, with each scene topping the last to see which one can induce the most eye-covering squirms.
Pliers to teeth, pliers to fingernails, burnt flesh, poison chugging, Russian roulette, and enough severed body parts to make Jigsaw dry heave are some of the tortures in store. Tightening tension dares viewers to not look away as often as the demon dares the octet, pushing the boundaries of basic cable carnage further than any Syfy production has gone before. “Truth or Dare” is shockingly visceral about its horror, which in this case turns out to be a double-edged machete.
“Truth or Dare” does evoke shades of “Hostel” and “Final Destination,” though its surrounding story and style are so serious, violence reads as oppressively bleak. If ever a fright film needed a thick dollop of dark comedy or slick sarcasm to aerate the taste of its gore, this is it. More disgusting than wickedly fun, the movie has a mean streak intention to put its characters through one Hell of a wringer without explaining why they deserve such gruesome deaths.
“Truth or Dare” doesn’t explain much of anything really. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” icon Heather Langenkamp pops in for a single scene of Old Lady Exposition to simply confirm everything everyone already figured out about the curse. A late revelation adds something about the dares being based on secret sins, although these obsessions aren’t spelled out for several of the folks serving as interchangeable fodder.
Thommy Hutson’s script more or less says, “heck with it” by sticking strictly to setting up each ordeal and leaving it at that. Nick Simon then tasks the cast with following instructions to knock down those pins and reset for the next frame. It’s a formula for standard scares that definitely gets a basic job done, and done well. Just don’t expect to be bowled over by anything particularly original once “Truth or Dare” is all said and done, which was pretty much its plan all along.
Review Score: 60