Some horror films deal in torture, some are torture to sit through, and some, like “Truth or Dare,” take off from a premise that is, in a word, tortured. In this decidedly inferior Blumhouse production, a clique of college kids head down to Mexico for spring break. After a week of partying, they’re lured to a crumbling, out-of-the-way church mission, where they’re goaded into playing a midnight game of truth or dare. There are a few weird tensions and omens, but only after they get back do they realize what’s happened: They’ve been followed home by a deadly version of the game. They’re being haunted by the demon spirit of truth or dare. If your reaction to this revelation falls somewhere between “Oh, wow!” and “Huh?,” you’ll be right in sync with audiences for “Truth or Dare,” which is a frantic muddle of a who-will-be-the-next-to-die? youth horror film.
It works something like this. Back on campus, one of our empty/pretty heroines or heroes will be standing in the middle of, say, the university library, and a fellow spring breaker will tilt his or her head down ever so slightly and burst into an evil leering smile that recalls the digitally doctored faces in the classic 1994 video for Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” That sick grinning face will then issue the demand of “Truth or dare.” Whichever one of those options the person in question chooses, if they fail to tell the whole truth — or to properly execute the dare — they will not be long for this world.
In theory, this could and should result in a highly sensational B–horror film in which an ever more scandalous series of dares and confessions leads to extravagant set pieces like the ones in the “Final Destination” series. An early scene pops with just this sort of bubble-gum dread: After some macho posturing, Ronnie (Sam Lerner), the group’s biggest douche, takes a dare to stand on a pool table and show off his “pool cue.” But when he chickens out, failing to parade himself with the proper exhibitionism (i.e., full frontal), he then trips and falls to his death in a relatively satisfying fashion. Not a great scene — but, in its way, a promising one.
“Truth or Dare,” however, doesn’t build on that tasty morsel of supernatural murder. There are several more dares, but the film is mostly interested in “the truth” — i.e., in forcing its characters to reveal their hidden layers, even though as characters they have no layers. We’re watching ciphers stripped psychologically bare. Does Olivia (Lucy Hale), the group’s do-gooder and social justice warrior, really love Lucas (Tyler Posey), the philandering boyfriend of her BFF, Markie (Violett Beane), who’s like a decadent sorority version of Kate Hudson? Will Brad (Hayden Szeto) come out to his hard-ass cop father (Tom Choi)? And what will happen when the game forces the future med student Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) to reveal that he’s selling illegal prescriptions? What will happen is…not very much. Instead of generating shock and awe, or even a few honest cheap thrills, “Truth or Dare” proceeds as a series of soap-opera revelations about characters we could hardly care less about. It’s like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” crossed with the world’s most convoluted episode of “Gossip Girl.”
The movie isn’t scary, it isn’t gripping, it isn’t fun, and it isn’t fueled by any sort of clever compulsion. It’s just a strangely arduous exercise that feels increasingly frantic and arbitrary as it goes along. Olivia, the nominal heroine, finally heads down to Mexico to track down the source of the game, in what has to be one of the rare “explanatory” movie scenes — it features an old Mexican woman with her tongue cut out who hasn’t spoken in 60 years, but manages to write messages for our benefit in broken English — that actually renders what we’re watching less comprehensible. By the end, audiences are likely to turn on “Truth or Dare,” a horror film that’s neither truthful nor daring but, in essence, a wayward movie pitch meeting in search of an explanation for itself.