In the early spring doldrums between Marvel movies, horror remains the second-best bet at the box office when it comes to crowd-pleasing thrills, and this year has already seen some disturbing — and disturbingly good — entries in the genre. Both Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place have provided moviegoers with some twisted alternatives to seeing Black Panther for the 50th time. But, though those movies are both very good, teen horror is way more fun. Geared towards the young folks, scary movies featuring characters closer to their age group tend to feature plots made all the more uncomfortable by how expertly they prey on the insecurities teens and college students already spend every day fighting. Nervous about that job interview? Crushing on someone you shouldn’t be? Keeping secrets from your friends? Truth or Dare finds one friend group’s deepest, darkest fears and uses them to their world apart.
Yet another testament to horror production company Blumhouse’s (at times baffling) success, the latest entry into their Wow, I Can’t Believe I Actually Enjoyed That canon, Truth or Dare, mixes chilling dread with some potent scares in a plot that’s relentlessly fun to watch unfold. The premise is simple: A group of twentysomethings gets caught in a demonic game of Truth or Dare that, seemingly, can’t be stopped. It’s a bit like Saw — they have to do the dares and tell the truths or they’ll die in some horrible, graphic fashion (though the movie is relatively low on gore).
All-around nice gal Olivia (Lucy Hale) wants to spend her last college vacation doing service work for the less fortunate in Mexico, but her close-knit group of friends convince her to spend her final week of fun before school ends living it up in the true spirit of spring break. On their last tequila-hazed night, Olivia meets a friendly stranger at a bar named Carter (Landon Liboiron), spends all night talking to him, and then convinces her friends to tag along when he invites them to someplace “cool,” off the beaten path. Yeah, big mistake.
Her friends reluctantly agree to go along, and Carter leads them to what looks like an abandoned monastery or convent on top of a hill, where, after they all do some half-hearted rummaging around the dusty debris, he suggests innocuously that they all play a game of Truth or Dare. After some adolescent fun — one guy is dared to give another guy a lapdance, one girl is dared to kiss another — one of Olivia’s friends asks Carter what his flirtatious “intentions” are towards Olivia, and Carter, chillingly, tells them the truth. He needed a group of people to lure there and trap into a game, and he did it because he doesn’t have a problem with strangers dying so that he can save himself. As he runs away, he tells them the rules: Once you’re asked, you’re in; play the game right, or you die.
Naturally, nobody believes him — until people start dying in ever-more-horrible ways. This is where the most gruesome and frightening aspect of the plot comes into play, if you’re as messed up by uncanny valley stuff (as I tend to be). When one of the friends gets their “turn,” the entity that’s controlling the game appears to them in the form of a friend or a stranger nearby, but with a cheek-stretching, gum-splitting grin digitally plastered on their face. The group has to first convince each other that the game is real, survive their turns, and race to figure out how it began and how to stop it.
After a time, you get a little used to the scary faces, and become attuned to the moments in which the frights will pop up. But Jeff Wadlow’s (Kick-Ass 2) direction relies more on dread and the horror of not seeing something rather than seeing it. Though the deaths and the violence are hideous, there’s almost no blood (with the exception of one scene where an upsetting amount of blood seeps out from underneath a door). The true terror comes from the game playing the group of friends against each other, slowly forcing them to reveal their most awful secrets to the people who should never hear them. The entity running the game is smart, and it swiftly learns everything about them. One character has a crush on her best friend’s boyfriend, one girl has a drinking problem, one boy is gay and hasn’t come out to his father, another writes illegal antidepressant prescriptions and is about to interview for medical school. You know the reveal is coming, and that feeling is deliciously uncomfortable.
Many in the cast of young actors have been tested on teen dramas like Pretty Little Liars (Hale), Hemlock Grove (Liboiron), The Flash (Violett Beane), and Teen Wolf (Tyler Posey), and all of them prove themselves game for a tightly plotted horror and a script sprinkled with fun, silly lines like, “Everyone knows you can’t say no to shots” spoken as if it were the 11th Commandment. Truth or Dare is likely to invite comparisons to a lot of other films. It takes a few cues here and there from Saw, It Follows, and Final Destination, but mostly manages to coast on an engaging cast and a story whose built-in anticipation keeps you in your seat (when you’re not jumping out of it). It’s no Get Out-caliber masterpiece; it’s more akin to last year’s gleefully grotesque Happy Death Day (another Blumhouse picture), which provided a deadly spin on Groundhog Day but featured enough humor to mark itself as something new and exciting. Truth or Dare again proves that, even with projects that aren’t in prestige realm, Jason Blum’s production studio is the horror house to watch.