Truth or Dare plays games with the supernatural horror subgenre

The film invests in an effective structure at the expense of its characters.

Violett Beane in Truth or Dare

As the horror genre continues to evolve with each new generation of filmgoers, so too does the emergence of recycled ideas – with a twist, of course. There’s always a twist. In Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare, we find a modern day take on the ever popular (albeit clichéd) idea of torturing American youths.

The film follows Olivia (Lucy Hale) and her group of friends as they play a deadly game of truth or dare. This is how it begins: While on Spring Break “just over the Mexican border,” the group is led to an old mission on the outskirts of town by a guy they barely know. There, amidst the rubble and ruin, their guide persuades them to play a seemingly innocent game of – you guessed it – truth or dare. It’s awkward and childish at first until the gang finds out the stranger’s true intentions for bringing them there – he’s looped into a dangerous game of life and death and he needs to acquire new players to pass along this curse. Thinking this all very strange, they leave confused – then odd things begin to happen.

With most supernatural horrors, there’s a relative series of events that take place strategically so we can learn more about the characters and the reasons why they react the way they do in the emergence of fear. With Truth or Dare, however, this is lacking. There’s an outline advancing the plot, seamlessly even – the beats are well utilized and the “game” aspect of the film is conveyed quite effectively. The issue lies more with character development. We never really get to know the main players – they seem generic and stereotypical at best; their personalities are as good as absent.

With other films in the genre, the set-up typically ties in a little more substantially, usually enough for the audience to gather some kind of affinity towards the victims and, dare I say, even the evil that plagues them. In It Follows, for instance, we are introduced to the characters in a way that keeps viewers subconsciously invested enough to feel something when death emerges from the shadows. There needs to be more of a connection between audience and character in order for this formula to work the way it is intended to. Unfortunately this is where Truth or Dare falls short.

The central theme here is an entertaining one – done to death perhaps, but there is a certain charm that has audiences coming back for more, decade after decade. With the well-known Final Destination and Nightmare on Elm Street series, we marvel at the absurdity of these young people being haunted by some permeated evil that seems to affect only them – and secretly relate. What is so alluring is the examination into the trials of adolescence and emerging adulthood – the fears that followed us even under the neon lights of classrooms and down the tree lined streets of suburbia. It’s isolating and foreign in every sense. The idea of exposing a secret, even a silly one, can feel excruciating – acting on one’s deepest desires or fears can have life altering consequences. So what to choose? Either way there seems to be punishment lying in wait, ready to devour.

The way Truth or Dare uses the seemingly innocent childhood game as a means to expose secrets and force conflict is exciting – after all, the influx of horror/thriller films using mind games as main plot devices (Cube, Ouija, Saw as some examples) seems to garner a cult following rather quickly. Could this be because audiences want to live vicariously through these doomed individuals? Do the underlining subtexts of anxiety and depravity strike a chord? No matter the reasoning for the extreme popularity this genre generates, it is safe to say that fear is infectious – it takes only one person to start a chain reaction.

While Truth or Dare’s use of “taking turns” is well executed, it would have perhaps taken a bit more insight into the deep psyche of these characters to truly unearth the tone of fear that it was aiming for. ■

Truth or Dare opens in theatres on Friday, April 13. Watch the trailer here: